Science & Technology

The secret to survival for the only two plants in Antarctica

By Rubén Figueroa

Santiago, Jul 16 (EFE).- From the Caribbean to the southernmost point of Chile, in the Antarctic, Cuban biologist Mareley Cuba Díaz has made the journey south three times, and now has in her lab roughly 15,000 specimens of the two only plants able to natively grow in the polar ecosystem.

Cuba is chasing the secret that allows these two species to thrive in such extreme conditions.

“These are the two only plants whose natural habitat is the Antarctic, so there are clues that they must have special characteristics that allow them to live and adapt to those conditions, which are too extreme for other plants,” says Cuba.

The scientist first arrived in Chile 23 years ago for a Phd in Biochemistry at the University of Chile, and now lives in Los Angeles, in the central Biobio region, where she teaches and investigates the flora of the Antarctic at the University of Concepcion.

Her laboratory is packed with more than 8,000 plants in vitro and close to 7,000 placed in jars under normal gardening conditions, making hers the largest collection of these specimens in the world.

“As far as I know, there is no other collection like this one. In fact, I actually provide resources to some other international researchers working on this, like one in Poland,” says Cuba.

Although she also keeps other species here and there, most of her plants belong to the only two specimens indigenous to Antarctica, the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).

“I first went to Antarctica in 2009, brought some samples to work with to the lab and started to multiply them,” she says.

Her dedication to the research has already reaped some results, with evidence of “certain modifications in their photosynthesis process allowing them to regulate the extreme conditions” and protect them from frostbite.

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