Countway and Matrai to conduct microbial research in Antarctica


Maine Senators Susan Collins and Angus King announced the National Science Foundation’s $1,093,785 award to Bigelow Laboratory to study microbial communities in Antarctica to better understand the cycling of DMSP, a compound that, when broken down, can lead to regional cloud formation. Senior Research Scientists Pete Countway and Paty Matrai will conduct the research.

“Bigelow Laboratory is a leader in efforts to study microbes and their effect on processes within our oceans,” said Senators Collins and King in a joint statement. “The health of our oceans is vital not only to the fishing industry, but to the entire global ecosystem. This investment will help the skilled oceanographers and scientists at Bigelow Laboratory better understand one important factor that affects the growth and development of marine microorganisms.”

Antarctica is known for seasonal phytoplankton blooms in which species of microalgae produce large amounts of the compound DMSP. DMSP is broken down by marine microbes to produce dimethylsulfide (DMS)—a compound that can increase cloud formation and thereby mitigate warming. Drs. Countway and Matrai plan to investigate the extent to which DMSP levels and rates of cycling influence, or are influenced by, the diversity and composition of the microbial populations in the region. Their work aims to identify the DMSP-producers, consumers, and predators to develop an understanding of the ecological and climatic roles of this important compound.

“The composition and genetic diversity of microbial communities in the Antarctic ecosystem is still not very well characterized, particularly with respect to the genes that transform DMSP into DMS,” explains Countway. “In regions like Antarctica that are especially sensitive to changes in the climate, it is incredibly important to characterize the response of the microbial community to compounds like DMSP before environmental changes accelerate.”

Matrai adds, “The Antarctic region plays an important role in atmospheric circulation and global weather patterns. Microbial communities that influence atmospheric gases in ways that can lead to cooling in the Antarctic can have an important mitigating role as global temperatures rise.”

Drs. Countway and Matrai, along with Research Associate Carlton Rauschenberg, and Bigelow-Colby College Changing Oceans semester program alumna Kathryn Moore will be spending eight weeks at Palmer Station, Antarctica starting in December 2016. The research is expected to continue through Spring 2019.