A North­eastern Uni­ver­sity bio­chem­istry and marine biol­o­gypro­fessor and one of his under­grad­uate stu­dents are preparing to embark on a six-​​month expe­di­tion to Antarc­tica to study the effect of global cli­mate change on marine organisms.

Pro­fessor Bill Det­rich and third-​​year bio­chem­istry stu­dent Corey Allard will inves­ti­gate the impact of warming seas in the South Polar Ocean on embry­onic devel­op­ment in Antarctic fish.

From April through Sep­tember, Allard will work and live at the United States Palmer Sta­tion, which is located near the Antarctic Circle; Det­rich will work in Antarc­tica during April and May.

Allard’s role in the project will con­tribute to the sci­en­tific community’s under­standing of cli­mate change and pre­pare him to pursue a PhD. “The idea that my work might have even a small impact on a highly rel­e­vant topic keeps me very moti­vated,” he says. Allard is the first North­eastern under­grad­uate to work in Antarctica.

He will mon­itor the impact of the ocean’s rising temperature—over the last 50 years, the sea tem­per­a­ture west of the Antarctic Penin­sula has increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—on the devel­op­ment of fish embryos by studying when and where embryos express crit­ical genes.

Embryos that develop in slightly warmer water may express these genes at incor­rect stages or loca­tions, Det­rich says, causing fish to grow abnormal jaws or fins.

Warmer waters might also speed up embry­onic devel­op­ment, causing fish to hatch before food becomes avail­able. Nor­mally, hatching occurs in Sep­tember, when the breakup of sea ice allows young fish to swim to phy­to­plankton, a staple of their diet.

From an eco­log­ical point of view, says Det­rich, fish embryo deaths or devel­op­mental abnor­mal­i­ties caused by warmer ocean tem­per­a­tures could dras­ti­cally alter the size of those fish pop­u­la­tions, in turn affecting the preda­tors — such as pen­guins, whales, and seals — that rely on the fish for food.

In addi­tion to illu­mi­nating the pos­sible impacts of cli­mate change, Det­rich says the team’s research on cold-​​blooded Antarctic ice­fish could shed light on human dis­eases, including cancer and osteoporosis.

Our ability to com­pare … processes such as cell divi­sion and bone for­ma­tion in organ­isms with cold versus warm body tem­per­a­tures pro­vides a novel ‘lens’ for under­standing fun­da­mental bio­log­ical mech­a­nisms” and how they are altered by dis­ease, he says.

The National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the National Insti­tutes of Health fund Detrich’s research in Antarctica.