When we think of life in Antarctica, we often think of penguins, seals and whales but many of these creatures spend only part of the year in the region. The permanent inhabitants of this continent are the mosses, algae, lichens and bacteria who live there all year round. Among these organisms, cyanobacteria have attracted a lot of scientific attention and for good reason. These bacteria were the first organisms to develop photosynthesis and as a result produce oxygen. If we are here today, it’s because these bacteria helped create Earth’s oxygen rich atmosphere.
Sometimes called ‘blue-green algae’, cyanobacteria can be found across the planet, but it is in Antarctica that they demonstrate their truly exceptional ability to adapt to the environment. With no competitors or predators, the cyanobacteria of Antarctica have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and now cover vast areas in what are known as ‘microbial mats’. They can also hibernate during periods of extreme cold, waiting for more clement conditions. Some bacteria in Antarctica may have spent millennia surviving in the permafrost.
In recent decades the emergence of advanced technologies such as molecular biology techniques has enabled scientists to understand the biodiversity of micro-organisms. Using these techniques researchers can ‘read’ their genetic material to learn more about their diversity and distribution. Today, a global database of this genetic material allows for valuable comparisons that teach us about the limits of life on Earth and the effects of climate change.