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    Antarctic Microbes

Microorganisms are everywhere – even in Antarctica!

Our research in Antarctica began several years ago in cooperation with conservators and other scientists to help identify the cause of deterioration that was destroying the historic huts built by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. These wooden huts were built there to house the expedition crews for up to 3 years while they explored Antarctica. After their exploits, the wooden huts and thousands of artifacts were left behind. About 100 years has passed since the huts were built and although they are located in Antarctica, significant deterioration has taken place. Molds grow and attack the wood, paper, textiles and other cultural properties inside the huts and unusual decay fungi attack the foundations. With funds from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs and with the cooperation of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, Antarctic New Zealand and the University of Waikato in New Zealand we have been studying the microorganisms that are responsible for the degradation and providing information to help conserve and protect the huts. Our research over the past years has provided important new information and copies of the scientific publications are listed below. General articles have also been written about our work and can be found at the page listing Magazine Articles.

Our research began with studies to better understand the microbes that were attacking the historic huts under these extreme environmental conditions. Since the huts were prefabricated and brought to Antarctica, it was expected that decay fungi causing the problems were likely brought in with the wood. However, this was not the case. The decay fungi found are well adapted to polar conditions and appear to be indigenous to Antarctica. Further study has shown that the fungi found in the wood were also the ones most commonly found in Antarctic soils where they have important roles as decomposer and recycling organisms in the Antarctic ecosystem. Research that started to better understand the microorganisms that were attacking the historic huts quickly expanded to investigate the biology and ecology of these little known but exceedingly important organisms. 

In addition, our investigations have expanded to include research at other historic wooden structures located in different areas of Antarctic that are in peril of being lost. The following links to additional web pages provide more in depth information and photographs on the various research projects that are underway:

Microbes attacking the historic huts built by Scott and Shackleton


Research at Deception Island



Scientific publications from our investigations:

Held, B. W. and R. A. Blanchjette. 2017. Deception Island Antarctica harbors a diverse assemblage of wood decay fungi. Fungal Biology 121:145-157. Reprint


Arenz B. E., R. A. Blanchette and R. L. Farrell. 2014. Fungal Diversity in Antarctic Soils. Pages 35-53. In Antarctic Terrestrial Microbiology: Physical and Biological Properties of Antarctic Soils. D. Cowan (ed.). Springer, Berlin.


Arenz, B. E. and R. A. Blanchette. 2011. Distribution and abundance of soil fungi in Antarctica at sites on the Peninsula, Ross Sea Region and McMurdo Dry Valleys. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 43:308-315. on line at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2010.10.016


Arenz, B. E., B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens and R. A. Blanchette. 2011. Fungal colonization of exotic substrates in Antarctica. Fungal Diversity 49:13-22. DOI:10.1007/s13225-010-0079-4


Farrell, R. L., B. E. Arenz, S. M. Duncan, B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens and R. A. Blanchette. 2011. Introduced and indigenous fungi of the Ross Island historic huts and pristine areas of Antarctica. Polar Biology 34:1669-1677. DOI 10.1007/s00300-011-1060-8


Held, B. W., B. E. Arenz and R. A. Blanchette. 2011. Factors influencing deterioration of historic structures at Deception Island, Antarctica. In Polar Settlements - Location, Techniques and Conservation. Edited by S. Barr and P. Chaplin. ICOMOS Monuments and Sites. International Polar Heritage Committee, Oslo, Norway. pp 35-43.  ISBN 978-82-996891-3-7. Reprint


Blanchette, R. A., B. W. Held, B. E. Arenz, J. A. Jurgens, N. J. Baltes, S. M. Duncan and R. L. Farrell. 2010. An Antarctic hot spot for fungi at Shackleton's historic hut on Cape Royds. Microbial Ecology 60:29-38. Reprint


Stehberg, Ruben, M. Pearson, R. A. Blanchette and J. A. Jurgens. 2009. A further note on a sealer's sledge discovered on Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands. Polar Record 45:275. doi:10.1017/S0032247409008201


Arenz, B. E. and R. A. Blanchette. 2009. Investigations of fungal diversity in wooden structures and soils at historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Canadian Journal of Microbiology 55:46-56. Reprint


Konkol, N. R., C J. McNamara, R. A. Blanchette, E. May and R. Mitchell. 2008. Microbes can damage but also help restore artifacts. Microbe 3(12): 563-567. Reprint


Arenz, B. A. and R. A. Blanchette. 2008. East Base, SOS: Assessment of deterioration and recommendations for conserving this important Antarctic site. In: Historical Polar Bases – Preservation and Management. Edited by S. Barr and P. Chaplin. ICOMOS Monuments and Sites No.XVII.  International Polar Heritage Committee, Oslo, Norway pp.96.  ISBN 978-82-996891-2-0. Copies can be obtained from the IPCH. Reprint


Duncan, S. M., R. Minasaki, R. L. Farrell, J.M. Thaites, B. W. Held, B. E. Arenz, Joel A. Jurgens and R. A. Blanchette. 2008. Screening fungi isolated from historic Discovery Hut on Ross Island, Antarctica for cellulose degradation. Antarctic Science 20:463-470. Reprint


Farrell, R. L., S. Duncan, R. A. Blanchette, B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens and B. A. Arenz. 2008. Scientific evaluation of deterioration of historic huts of Ross Island, Antarctica. In: Historical Polar Bases – Preservation and Management. Edited by S. Barr and P. Chaplin. ICOMOS Monuments and Sites No.XVII.  International Polar Heritage Committee, Oslo, Norway pp.96.  ISBN 978-82-996891-2-0. Copies can be obtained from the IPCH.


Arenz, B. E., B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens, R. L. Farrell and R. A. Blanchette. 2006. Fungal diversity in soils and historic wood from the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 38:3057-3064.


Duncan, S., R. L. Farrell, J. M. Thwaites, B. W. Held, B. E. Arenz, J. A. Jurgens and R. A. Blanchette. 2006. Endoglucanase-producing fungi isolated from Cape Evans historic expedition hut on Ross Island, Antarctica. Environmental Microbiology 8:1212-1219.


Held, B. W., J.A. Jurgens, S.M. Duncan, R.L. Farrell and R.A. Blanchette. 2006. Assessment of fungal diversity and deterioration in a wooden structure at New Harbor, Antarctica. Polar Biology 29:526-531. Published on line as DOI 10.1007/s00300-005-0084-3


Held, B. W., J. A. Jurgens, B. E. Arenz, S. M. Duncan, R. L. Farrell and R. A. Blanchette. 2005. Environmetal factors influencing microbial growth inside the historic huts of Ross Island, Antarctica. International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation 55:45-53.


R.A. Banchette, B.W. Held, J.A. Jurgens, D.L. McNew, T.C. Harrington, S.M. Duncan, and R.L. Farrell. 2004. Wood-destroying soft rot fungi in the historic expedition huts of Antarctica. Applied Environmental Microbiology 70:1328-1335.


Blanchette, R. A., B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens, J. Aislabie, S. Duncan and R. L. Farrell. 2004. Environmental pollutants from the Scott and Shackleton expeditions during the 'Heroic Age' of Antarctic exploration. Polar Record 40:143-151.


Farrell, R. L., R. A. Blanchette, M. Auger, S. M. Duncan, B. W. Held, J. A. Jurgens, and R. Minasaki. 2004. Scientific evaluation of deterioration in historic huts of Ross Island, Antarctica. In: S. Barr and P. Chaplin (Eds.), Polar Monuments and Sites: Cutural Heritage in the Arctic and Antarctica Regions. ICOMOS Monuments and Sites Number VIII. Available from the International Polar Heritage Committee


Blanchette, R.A., 2003. Deterioration in Historic and Archaeological Woods from Terrestrial Sites. In: Koestler, R.J., Koestler, V.R., Charola, A.E., and Nieto-Fernandez, F.E., (Eds.), Art, Biology, and Conservation: Biodeterioration of Works of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 328-347. PDF reprint


Blanchette, R. A., B. W. Held and R. L. Farrell. 2002. Defibration of wood in the expedition huts of Antarctica: an unusual deterioration process occurring in the polar environment. Polar Record 38:313-322.





Mountains in Antarctica

Antarctica is a beautiful continent and much of it is covered by snow and ice. However, there are many ice free regions and temperatures can get above freezing along coastal areas and in other locations during the austral summer.


Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica. This hut, built in 1908, has survived the extreme Antarctic environment for over a hundred years but is now under attack by unusual fungi.


The inside of Shackleton's hut looks much like it did 100 years ago. Although the materials left by the early explorers appear to be in fairly good condition, fungi have taken a toll causing disfiguring growth on historic materials inside the hut and decay of wood in ground contact.


Mold growing on food storage box

Dark fungal growth on food storage box inside the historic hut.


cross section of wood showing decay

Cross section of wood from the hut foundation showing the wood cells with advanced stages of decay. Fungi have degraded the wood causing cavities inside the woody cell walls.


Field camp in Antarctica during one of our events.


Penguins at Cape Royds

Thousands of penguins live adjacent to Shackleton's hut on Cape Royds. Penguin guano near the hut provides nutrients that can help support the growth of decay fungi.


Penguins in Antarctica

Adelie penguins with their young.


Booklets of hut conservation plans

Conservation plans have been developed for the Ross Sea historic huts and large scale conservation efforts are underway by the Antarctic Heritage Trust to preserve these important historic structures.

Landing boat on shore in antarctica

Our research investigations on the fungal diversity in Antarctica has continued beyond the Ross Sea reigon and has included many sites in the Dry Valleys and in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Deception Island and Whaling station

Deception Island near the Antarctic Peninsula is the site of a historic whaling staion. Our research at this island has shown an exceptionaly large diversity of fungi can be found there. Many of these fungi are causing serious decay in the historic buildings and other artifacts left on the island. More information on our studies at Deception Island.



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