A mother seal and her newborn pup get acquainted on the ice in Antarctica
A mother seal and her newborn pup get acquainted on the ice in Antarctica

A two-month research stint on remote Ross Island in Antarctica can test your endurance in many ways.

Working outside in sub-zero temperatures. Wrangling 500-pound seals onto a portable scale. Enduring a long separation from your family and friends. Commuting to work on the back of a snowmobile across the windiest continent on earth.

Luckily, for Massachusetts General Hospital researchers Emmanuel Buys, PhD, and Allyson Hindle, PhD, the rewards of investigating Weddell Seals and the mechanisms they have evolved for long-duration diving far outweigh the challenges of working in a remote and hostile environment.

This fall, Buys and Hindle have returned to Antarctica to continue their study of Weddell Seals, world-champion diving mammals with unique adaptations that allow them to spend more than an hour underwater without surfacing for air.

This is Buys’ second trip to Antarctica and Hindle’s seventh (though her second as a faculty member at Mass General). The researchers left Boston in mid-October and are expected to return in early December, weather permitting.

Team B267

Research team B267 upon arriving at McMurdo Station earlier this fall. Pictured from left are Alison Hindle, PhD, Emmanuel Buys, PhD, Kaitlin Allen and Luis Huckstadt, PhD.

Their research team, known as B267, also includes research tech Kaitlin Allen and Luis Huckstadt, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dan Costa, PhD, a co-PI on the project. Dr. Costa is based at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

During their stay in Antarctica, the team is based at McMurdo Station, which is operated by the United States government through the United States Antarctic Program.

The station, which opened in 1956, is the largest community in the Antarctic and the entry point for researchers from all over the world.

It has the ability to support more than 1,250 residents and features more than 100 buildings including numerous science labs, a fire station, a hospital, dorm rooms, an aquarium, a greenhouse and two ATMs.

In an interview prior to their departure last month, Buys and Hindle said they are hoping this trip will provide new insights about the molecular and genetic factors that underlie the seals’ ability to go for long periods of time without oxygen.

Previous studies by Warren Zapol, MD, Director of the Anesthesia Center for Critical Care Research at Mass General, and others have demonstrated that the seals use a variety of techniques to sustain these long dives, such as storing high-oxygen blood cells in their spleens to be released as needed, and restricting blood flow to different parts of the body in order to maximize their diving capability.

Buys, Hindle and their research collaborators—including Dr. Zapol—are now interested in learning how these adaptations function at a molecular and genetic level. What specific genes are responsible for these traits, and what signaling pathways make them possible?

To answer these questions, they will make the 30-60 minute commute to the seal birthing grounds on an almost daily basis. Once there, they will collect samples from placentas cast off by mother seals after birth; take blood, tissue and plasma samples from live seals under sedation; and do opportunistic necroscopies (the animal version of autopsies) on naturally deceased seals.

Weddell seals are protected by the United States government and the researchers’ interactions are with them are strictly regulated. They cannot harm the seals in any way, or intervene with the natural processes of life and death.

Upon returning to their laboratory at McMurdo, the team will process the blood and tissue samples to isolate RNA and proteins, and work on establishing cell cultures. In conjunction with the Hochedlinger Lab at Mass General, they are hoping to make seal stem cells that will allow them to grow and study seal tissues in a lab or a dish.

Because the seal cells have adapted to perform very specific functions related to the distribution of oxygen, they could provide an interesting point of contrast to experiments that have already been done in mice and human cell lines, Hindle explained.

A better understanding of these processes could eventually help researchers develop new treatments for conditions in humans where blood flow is interrupted, such as heart attacks and strokes. The research could also help in treating disorders that cause insufficient oxygen supply to tissues, such as pneumonia, sepsis and some cancers.

Although they are a long way off from translating their work into treatments for patients, Buys and Hindle are hoping it’s possible to accelerate the process of discovery by taking advantage of biological strategies that have already been worked out by evolution.

“Why reinvent the wheel when there is a tremendous diversity of physiology that exists in the world, and there are things we can learn [from that]?” asks Hindle.

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