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Insect adaptation to Antarctica: past and future

Project Description

Model reconstructions of the last glacial maximum (LGM ~20 000 years BP) suggest that all low-lying coastal areas on Antarctica, and many sub-Antarctic islands were completely covered by ice – thus wiping out all terrestrial life. However, this idea is now challenged by an increasing body of biological evidence which depicts evolutionary phylogenies of terrestrial species separated by many millions of years, strongly suggesting the continual presence of habitat refugia since Antarctica split from the other Southern Hemisphere continents at least 28 million years ago [Allegrucci et al. 2012].
Some of the most compelling evidence regarding the biogeography of Antarctic terrestrial organisms comes from studies of Antarctic insects. The flightless midge Belgica antarctica is the southernmost insect and the largest permanent free-living terrestrial animal in Antarctica. It is the only insect endemic to the continent and divergence dates, obtained from sequencing ribosomal RNA, indicate 49 Myr separation from its closely related/sister midge species that is endemic to sub-Antarctic South Georgia, Eretmoptera murphyi. Thus, rather than being recent colonists that were pre-adapted to the extreme Antarctic environment, these species have potentially been evolving unique adaptations in complete isolation for almost 30 million years.
Investigating the genomes and physiology of these species offers incredibly powerful comparative models for probing their evolutionary biology as well as responses to stress [Hayward, 2014; Kelly et al. 2014]. Combined with studies of their ecology, this will allow us to determine the capacity of endemic species to cope with climate change, as well as the risks posed by invasive alien species moving into the region.
This project will add a new dimension to an existing 3 yr grant (2019-2022) between UoB, BAS, USAP as well as project partners in Chile and France, to compare a unique sub-set of Antarctic and high latitude southern insects. In doing so, we aim to identify key genomic features and ecophysiological adaptations to polar habitats which can also be compared with other extremophiles. These data will also open the door for comparison with potential invasive species, to assess the impact of ‘alien’ invasions under climate change facilitated by increasing human activity in Antarctica.

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.
• Annual stipend, set at £15,009 for 2019/20
• Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


Allegrucci et al. (2012) Evolutionary geographic relationships among orthocladine chironomid midges from maritime Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 106: 258–274.
Everatt et al. (2015) Responses of invertebrates to temperature and water stress: A polar perspective J. Therm. Biol. 54: 118-132.

Hayward (2014) Application of functional ‘Omics’ in environmental stress physiology: insights, limitations, and future challenges. Curr. Op. Insect Sci. 4: 35-41.

Kelly et al. (2014) Compact genome of the Antarctic midge is likely an adaptation to an extreme environment. Nat. Comm. 5:4611.

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