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Fiocruz's Antarctica Program resumes scientific expeditions


Cristina Azevedo (Fiocruz News Agency)


After a one-year break due to the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fiocruz in Antarctica (Fioantar) project resumed its scientific excursions into the continent with a new departure this Wednesday morning (10/13). After a week of quarantine with actions to fight COVID-19, including diagnostic tests before and during the period, the Ary Rongel oceanographic support ship set sail to the Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station carrying researcher Lucas Moreira. In November, three other Fioantar researchers - Maria Ogrzewalska, Harrison Magdinier Gomes, and Maithê Magalhães - will be leaving aboard the Almirante Maximiliano ship, also called Max, to complete the first part of the mission.

Lucas is traveling aboard the Ary Rongel oceanographic support ship (Photo: Lucas Moreira)

The tests and the quarantine period are just some of the changes faced by rookies and vets alike. The pandemic has also made the journey itself longer. While the two previous expeditions lasted a single month, as part of the trajectory was made by airplane, it now takes three whole months, as scientists travel by ship and neither crew nor the researchers themselves disembark at any moment during the journey to Antarctica, to avoid contaminations.

Third expedition and Fiolab

The additional safety measures failed to curb the enthusiasm of Maria Ogrzewalska, Lucas Machado Moreira, Harrison Magdinier Gomes, and Maithê Magalhães, who will be embarking in this Third Expedition, or of Martha Lima Brandão and Roberto do Val Vilela, who will be part of the Fourth Expedition, in January. Moreira will be working at the station until the arrival of “Max”. The reunion will be brief: Lucas will pass the baton on to Harrison Gomes and Maithê Magalhães and then leave the station on Max, moving on with Maria Ogrzewalska to collect samples from different parts of the continent.

While Ogrzewalska and Machado will be based on the ship, often without any link with the outside world, Gomes and Magalhães will remain at the station, this time with an extra novelty: Fiolab - the biosafety laboratory assembled and installed by Fiocruz at the Antarctic Station. Inaugurated in January 2020, the lab will allow for the immediate analysis of samples collected near the station, without the need to wait for the ship coming from Rio de Janeiro in April next year.

Maithê Magalhães, Lucas Machado Moreira, Maria Ogrzewalska and Harrison Magdinier Gomes: third expedition (Photo: Paulo Lara) 

“We have samples collected in 2019 and 2020. We will now be able to collect and analyze the new samples without the need to leaving them stored for too long. We will see whether the results are more efficient and how the samples behave”, said Gomes, researcher of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology Applied to Mycobacterium (IOC/Fiocruz).

Gomes and Magalhães will collect samples of bacteria and mycobacteria at the Keller Peninsula, where the station is located, in natural and artificial (cooling systems, for instance) water sources, soil, defrost material, lichens, carcasses, and feces. The idea is to extract DNA and then carry on with the studies in Brazil. Among the mycobacteria that can survive low temperatures is Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which can cause infection in humans, and Bovis, used to manufacture the BCG vaccine. “With this research, we will be able to observe [over time] how climate change can impact not only Antarctica, but also Latin America and Brazil. We will attempt to define patterns in the distribution of microorganisms”, explained Gomes, who is now on his second trip.

Magalhães, of the Functional and Bioinformatic Genomics Laboratory (IOC/Fiocruz), is on her first trip. She is more focused on metagenomics, the analysis of the genome of all microorganisms sampled. Together with Gomes, she emphasized that the results “are not only useful for our own labs, but also for all Fioantar laboratories”.

Three months at sea

While Gomes and Magalhães work at the station, Ogrzewalska and Moreira will remain on board. This is Ogrzewalska’s second time, and she hopes to do more this time: during her first trip, in December 2019, the fall of a Chilean airplane forced the Brazilian ship to make a detour to help with the search and rescue operations, shortening the time available for sample collecting. “We now know that absolutely anything can happen”, she said. A researcher of the Laboratory of Respiratory Viruses and Measles (IOC/Fiocruz), she will be looking for the Influenza virus in the feces of birds and marine mammals. In her previous expedition, she found the H11N2 virus on Penguin Island. She now intends to compare the results.

Moreira works at the Mycology Laboratory (INI/Fiocruz) and will be searching for fungi and doing bioprospecting for therapeutic and industrial uses. The group has already identified pathogenic fungi in the region for the first time, and their results are unprecedented. He is also reigning in his expectations and mentioned that Antarctica is “ruled by weather conditions”. The researcher hopes that the weather is helpful enough to go to the Aspas (Especially Protected Antarctic Areas), the ones least subject to human interference.

Remaining on board a ship for that long is also a psychological challenge. It means months without seeing their families and long periods without communication with the outside world. “It is a very restricted space, in the company of people you don’t know. You need to turn on your side to leave your bed, without actually getting your body up. But everyone’s very professional about it”, says Ogrzewalska. “I love doing field research, so I don’t mind.” She is expected to return to Brazil in late December, while Moreira will likely return to the station and come back home with the rest of the group in mid-February.

Climber researcher is on his fourth expedition

January will be the turn of Martha Brandão and Roberto Vilela, two Antarctica veterans. Brandão has been there twice. Vilela is on his first trip there as a researcher, although he’s been to the continent six other times... as a mountain climber hired by the Brazilian Navy.

Martha Brandão and Roberto Vilela: veterans at Antarctica (Photo: Paulo Lara)

“An Antarctic climber is responsible for safety during travel, especially on ice. Glaciers have large cracks hidden by snow. We need to be ‘roped’ while we move around. A lot of people have disappeared in Antarctica because of these cracks”, says Vilela, who works at the Laboratory of Biology and Parasitology of Reservoir Wild Mammals.

Brandão, of the Paleoparasitology Laboratory (Ensp/Fiocruz), and Vilela hope to identify the biodiversity of helminths, worms also present in birds, seals and sea lions, of which very little is known. Helminths likely developed in South America and in Africa, and then migrated to Antarctica. It is, therefore, possible to find “relatives” in other places.

“Thanks to these worms I know which type of fish the penguins are eating, I can talk about environmental health”, observed Brandão. “Our group has an integrated vision, and this is our differential. Those who travel to Antarctica to study pinnipeds (the order of aquatic mammals that includes seals, sea lions and walruses) usually study exclusively these animals. We have this differential aspect of also studying viruses, helminths, fungi, and the way all these pathogens circulate. It is a more integrated view”, she concluded.

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