Antarctica on the horizon

By Jonas Waldenström

We had some great news last week! Our application to the Chilean research council was funded and our project Campylobacter in Antarctica can be launched in 2014! And what a launch it is: three years with fieldwork on the Antarctic Peninsula! Among penguins and skuas, whales and icebergs, seals and snow! Stuff for legends – Shackleton land, the last frontier – home of the brave!

The last frontier

The last frontier

The project is headed by Dr Daniel Gonzalez-Acuna from the University of Concepción in Chile – one of the best parasitologists in South America and a fantastic, enthusiastic guy! We have collaborated intensely for a number of years already, and last year was the closure of the first Antarctic program. That project aimed at understanding the life cycle of the seabird tick Ixodes uriae and its capacity of transmitting different diseases such as Borrelia, ornithosis, and others. Remember: this is a barren, dry and extremely cold environment, and it is incredible to think that this is also the preferred habitat for a parasitic arthropod. The penguin chicks – the provider of blood meals – are only available during the short Austral summer, and a life cycle can take many years to complete.

Dr Daniel Gonzalez-Acuna and an eight legged fellow

Dr Daniel Gonzalez-Acuna and an eight legged fellow

Most of the results of the previous expeditions are still in the lab, or are being analyzed in the computer. But some stuff is already out. During one of the expeditions a number of samples were collected from the sea just outside the scientific bases at different intervals from the bases’ sewage outlets. The water was filtrated and the filters cultivated for the presence of fecal coliform bacteria. In cases where bacterial growth was present, we went on and identified the bacteria and tested their susceptibility to different antibiotics. Much to our surprise we found real nasty bugs in the samples – ESBL-producing E. coli. The same type of bugs that can cause hospital-acquired infections in many parts of the world. Definitely not bugs to be leaked out into the Antarctic. This article, published in 2012 in AEM, was picked up by the press and spread around widely!

This time we will look at Campylobacter, especially Campylobacter jejuni, but also Campylobacter coli and Campylobacter lari. C. jejuni is a leading cause of bacterial gastroenteritis in humans. However, humans are only accidental hosts for this zoonotic pathogen. It has been detected from a wide range of animal species, primarily birds – and very frequently in poultry. This is likely where you, dear reader, may have made its acquaintance. Although the number of asymptomatic infections probably is high – some say very high – if you get bad, it is real bad. Stomach pains, vomiting and profuse diarrhea! All nasty, real nasty.

An army of locals on the march (photo by Jonas Bonnedahl)

An army of locals on the march (photo by Jonas Bonnedahl)

Why penguins? First, it is interesting to make a thorough inventory of what is in Antarctic wildlife. Are the campylobacters found in Antarctica similar to those in other areas of the world, and to disease-causing strains? However, equally interesting are the population genetic structure of campylobacters, and the frequent horizontal transmission of genes within and even between species. Like a jigsaw puzzle, where genome parts are exchanged and rearranged in new constellations. And now when all tools are available: which genes are found in strains adapted to live in cold environments? What do they do, and how do they work?

Many questions, and many good reasons to go to Antarctica. Time to pack my Shackleton outfit!

Proper researchers in field fittings

Proper researchers in field fittings

Hernández, J., Stedt, J., Bonnedahl, J., Molin, Y., Drobni, M., Calisto-Ulloa, N., Gomez-Fuentes, C., Soledad Astorga-España, M., González-Acuña, D., Waldenström, J., Blomqvist, M. & Olsen, B. 2012. Extended Spectrum β-Lactamase (ESBL), Antarctica. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 78: 2056-2058. [doi: 10.1128/AEM.07320-11]

3 thoughts on “Antarctica on the horizon

  1. Pingback: If it wasn’t for fieldwork… | Zoonotic Ecology and Epidemiology

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