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Published March 23, 2010

The rarely seen creatures in Antarctica's lush algae "forests" are the subjects of a University of Alabama at Birmingham search for potential new cancer medicines.

© 2010 National Geographic; Video courtesy Chuck Amsler, UAB

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Unedited Script

The cold waters near Antarctica are filled with lush forests of 4 main species of large algae plants, or seaweeds.

Researchers are comparing their pervasiveness to giant kelp forests of the more temperate Pacific coast of California.

SOUNDBITE: Chuck Amsler, Phycologist, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham: “You enter these dense forests. They rise up 3 or 4 feet off the bottom just carpeting the bottom.”

Researchers have found the plants and invertebrates in this region produce defensive chemicals, and some are under study for the treatment of at least one type of cancer.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham are in the midst of a 3-month diving expedition to the frozen continent.

The video, shot by lead researcher Chuck Amsler, shows lush growths below the ocean surface along the western side of Antarctica’s peninsula.

SOUNDBITE: Chuck Amsler, Phycologist, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham: “You don’t think about there being forests in Antarctica. But there truly are these forests of giant seaweeds underneath the surface of the water.”

The large brown algae forest includes one species that can grow up to 50 feet in length and up to 4 feet wide. These lie on the bottom, at a depth of 100 feet and more, and cover the floor nearly 100 percent in some areas.

Another brown macroalgae, or seaweed, has small spherical gas-filled bladders to make it buoyant, and the 6 foot tall plants stay upright.

Smaller algae grows at shallower depths, but still, often covers the sea floor.

These lush Antarctic forests are different from their counterparts in warmer climates.

SOUNDBITE: Chuck Amsler, Phycologist, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham: “And what’s unusual compared to other large forests of algae in other places in the world, is that these forests of algae are chemically defended. They are using compounds to make them taste bad.”

By tasting bad, large algae doesn’t get eaten by other organisms. They feast on smaller algae, and that in turn keeps the small algae from encroaching on the big algae.

Then, besides the forests, there is other thriving life in these cold waters.

SOUNDBITE: Chuck Amsler, Phycologist, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham: “There are lots of very steep shores, where especially when we get down deep, we get to be on pretty much vertical walls. And when you’re on vertical walls, and there are overhangs and things, the big seaweeds don’t do as well. And that’s where we can start to find really lush and really diverse communities of sponges and colonial sea squirts or tunicates, soft corals, you don’t think about corals, and it’s not hard re-forming corals but gorgonian and soft corals. And they will cover nearly a 100 percent or certainly well over 60-70 percent of that surface.”

From some of the tunicates, the researchers discovered a compound that in the laboratory, in early studies, has been shown to combat some forms of melanoma in mice.

SOUNDBITE: Jim McClintock, Marine Chemical Ecologist, UAB: “We certainly have the potential of discovering a compound that could help fight cancer, or AIDS or a flu virus, these types of things.”

Because the water is so cold, the researchers’ dives are limited to 30-40 minutes at a time. They wear thick layers of underwear under dry suits, but their hands do get cold.

SOUNDBITE: Chuck Amsler, Phycologist, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham: “Unfortunately, if we wore as much on our hands as we wore everywhere else, we’d be wearing boxing gloves and we wouldn’t get a lot of work done. So you’re hands get cold. We have some tricks, and chemical heater packs on the hands are nice.”

Their primary goal on these dive studies is to find out more about the ecosystems in these underwater forests, and learn about the relationships between the creatures and plants that live there.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham in Antarctica expedition is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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