July 19, 2021 | Knowledge & Science

The steward of Antarctica’s native plants

The steward of Antarctica’s native plants | Marca Chile

Biologist Marely Cuba oversees an Universidad de Concepción laboratory that houses over 15,000 specimens of the only two flowering plants native to Antarctica. Her work is key to preserving the territory’s biodiversity.

Only two species of native flowering plants grow in Antarctica: Deschampsia antarctica, the Antarctic hairgrass, a grass similar to wheat; and Colobanthus quitensis, the Antarctic pearlwort, a member of the carnation family.

Following her first trip to Antarctica in 2009, biologist Marely Cuba created her collection of plants native to the white continent. She currently grows over 15,000 plant specimens in the Universidad de Concepción Los Ángeles campus laboratory, where she is a researcher and permanent lecturer. Her objective is to study the unique characteristics of species able to survive in extreme climatic conditions.

“They are the only two plants that live naturally in Antarctica. Therefore, they are giving us clues to some of the special characteristics they possess that allow them to live in and adapt to these conditions, which are very extreme for other plants. There must be something very special that allows them to live and grow under those conditions,” the Cuban scientist states. Dr. Cuba arrived in Chile 23 years ago to complete her doctorate in Biochemistry at the Universidad de Chile. She now lives in the Biobío Region.

Dr. Cuba explains that one of the advantages of growing and propagating these plants in a laboratory is that she can conduct her research without constantly traveling to Antarctica, thus reducing her carbon footprint and the human impact on the territory where these species grow.

Regarding the effects of global warming, Dr. Cuba states that these Antarctic plants have the capacity to adapt to change and are resilient enough to continue to grow under new environmental conditions. In some areas, the population of these species has even increased. However, the main danger that they face as a result of more favorable conditions is the appearance of new species that may become invasive and compete with Antarctica’s native plants.

Dr. Cuba and her students care for the laboratory’s thousands of plants. During the pandemic, the university suspended in-person learning and the researcher had to take additional measures to care for the Antarctic plants. She even brought them home to work with them during the day, before returning them to the laboratory each night. “It is fun but very detailed work,” explains Marely, the 2018 winner of the Antarctic Science Prize awarded by the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

“A country’s genetic patrimony is of paramount importance, because it is part of the conservation of biodiversity,” Dr. Cuba explains. She adds that she is currently working on a project in collaboration with the Yucatan Scientific Research Center in Mexico, focused on deciphering the mechanisms that allow these plants to respond to salinity.

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