Written by Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. 

A research scientist and a medical student from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the School of Medicine are back from a scientific journey of a lifetime at Palmer Station, a United States research station in Antarctica. What they learned might shed light not only on the biological systems of the icefish, but also on the global impact of climate change.

Iskander Ismailov and Jordan Scharping are a part of a multi-university team of heart and brain researchers investigating the mechanisms that threaten the survival of a species that represents 90 percent of the biomass in the great Southern Ocean – icefishes.

Icefishes are unique as the only vertebrate species on Earth that lack hemoglobin in their blood. Instead, icefishes developed a type of antifreeze in their blood that allows oxygen to dissolve directly rather than having to be transported to their organs by hemoglobin. However, all is not well for the icefishes.

The Southern Ocean is warming rapidly above the freezing point of water. While we still find the water extremely cold, it’s too warm for the icefishes’ physiological systems to operate efficiently, which leads to deleterious changes in their biology and behavior and causes their ultimate demise. We believe the primary problem may be that the icefish heart malfunctions because of excessive stress, or a failure of the signaling mechanism of the nerve cells in the brain to generate normal patterns of electrical signals, or a combination of the two.

The expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, is populated with experts aiming to elucidate the primary precipitating mechanism. That’s how the expedition, at least for Iskander and Jordan, started in my laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, working in the laboratory of C. Ladd Prosser, we conducted pioneering studies on the effects of temperature variations on the molecular biology, physiology, and behavior of goldfishes. Although my current research tends to focus on mammalian brain plasticity in development, learning, and injury, the Antarctica team approached me to participate in their expedition. Unfortunately, for me, I couldn’t personally make the commitment of several months in Antarctica, with my responsibilities at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, at the Virginia Tech Carilion the School of Medicine, and on the main Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Instead, Iskander and Jordan volunteered.

Iskander, originally from Russia and accustomed to the cold, volunteered instantly. He’s an excellent neurophysiologist in my laboratory, as well as adventurous, so I wasn’t surprised at his enthusiasm.

I was more uncertain when it came to offering the opportunity to medical students, who typically pursue research more immediately and directly related to human health. Yet, to my delight, several volunteered. Jordan, a native Californian, was selected and began an intensive training period of 15 months to learn how to perform the delicate procedures necessary in brain research. He did this while also taking medical school classes, attending patient case presentations, and studying for the national board exams.

Jordan and Iskander did outstanding work in preparation for the expedition. All of our delicate instrumentation, microscopes, and surgical setups had to be sufficiently miniaturized and made durable for the flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, where it was transferred to a ship and taken south to Palmer Station. As such, the last year has been as much a systems engineering and design project as an experimental biology project.

Iskander and Jordan solved numerous problems, overcame obstacles, and engineered solutions throughout the process. Now, they’ve finally carried out the experiment. Iskander was in Antarctica for three months, while Jordan was there for six weeks. They’re due back in the United States this week.

It’s winter in Antarctica, so the conditions are cold, windy, and dark, with heavy seas on the crossing. The multiple research teams, including Jordan and Iskander, worked around the clock in a laboratory hut equipped with the necessary instrumentation for their research. The living conditions are Spartan, but wholesome meals were provided and the station was staffed with a surgeon in case of medical emergencies.

The teams even got to go on fishing trips – to catch their laboratory specimens.

The teams are returning with treasure troves of data to analyze over the coming years. We will likely not only learn about the stresses that icefishes experience, but we should also gain valuable new insights into how extreme low temperatures affect brain and heart function in general. We could learn new things from these amazing critters that may apply to human health, including strategies for treating conditions such as stroke, drowning, traumatic brain injury, myocardial infarction, and heart failure.

I am extremely proud of Iskander and Jordan for their dedication to this project, innovative work, and willingness to carry out fundamental research that will likely lay the foundations for future medical breakthroughs as well as enhance our understanding of our planet. If we can help inform rational decisions about managing our precious planet and the species that we share it with as well as learn new principles that may benefit human health, it will be a good day at the office.

Photos of the journey can be found on the Virginia Tech Carilion website.