A new scientific work explains one of the potential impacts of the climate crisis due to the melting of glaciers.

Research published in the prestigious journal Science of the Total Environment reveals how Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), chemical substances that remain in the environment, are transported and accumulate in food chains, are being degraded by bacteria present in the waters of the Antarctica.

Dr. Juan Höfer, oceanographer at the Center for Dynamic Research of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Austral University of Chile (UACh) and academic at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso (PUCV,) participated in this study that was carried out out in Fildes Bay.

The researcher points out that this work arises from the project of Dr. Cristóbal Galbán, environmental biologist and academic at the Center for Genomics, Ecology and Environment (GEMA) of the Mayor University (UM,) who studies the dispersion of these pollutants and how they reach Antarctica and are exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean.

“Looking at the data and the different compounds, we realized that some had a lower concentration in the sea, which tells us that there is something that is removing them, that is making them disappear,” says Höfer.

The oceanographer explains that “we generate these pollutants through human activities. Most of them are not local, they are not from Antarctica, but come from other places and are transported” and he adds that these compounds can be deposited in the ocean or in the form of snow and ice.

“What we saw in this work is that as there begins to be more melting in these coastal areas, which have glaciers nearby or snow around, there may be a secondary entry of these pollutants, not only through interaction with the atmosphere, but due to the contributions that come from snow and ice,” he says.

The scientist also mentions that “what caught our attention the most is that there are indeed bacteria that are capable of degrading some of these compounds. This tells us that, even in these areas, there are local communities that have the capacity to degrade them. We don’t know if it could be due to exposure or if they have it naturally. We are interested in knowing how common they are and if there are similar routes for other types of compounds.”

Potentialities of bacteria

The IDEAL Center researcher says that “these bacteria are capable of carrying out degradation, a biochemically not very cheap process, in cold temperatures: The water can be one or two degrees, even zero or less. So this indicates to us that bacteria have potential interest for bioremediation or degradation of these compounds in environments other than a controlled laboratory environment.” Bioremediation is a biotechnological process that uses living organisms to recover an environment altered by contaminants.

“These compounds are persistent, they last a long time in the environment. Once we release them, even in small quantities, they do not tend to disappear. The fact of finding small bacteria floating in very cold waters that are capable of degrading some of these compounds is impressive. This means that, even in more pristine areas such as the poles, organisms have the capacity to degrade at least some of them,” he says.

Dr. Höfer, who has been researching Antarctic marine ecosystems and how global change affects their functioning since 2017, concludes that “microorganisms never cease to surprise us. They always have the ability to adapt and react. How much it can affect us, how much it cannot, how useful it can be or even the magnitude. All of that is what needs to be measured and we have to continue investigating. But that the possibility exists and that we have detected that it occurs, even in these extreme conditions, that is always surprising.”

The research can be reviewed by clicking here.