An island in Antarctica, located in the crater of one of the most active volcanoes on the continent, has functioned as a laboratory on the impact that tourism can bring to the archipelago of the South Shetland Islands.
Located 152 km in a straight line from Brazilian station Comandante Ferraz, Deception Island has an area for tourists, called Whalers Bay, where there are volcanic thermal waters. Ship cruises there can cost around $ 25,000.
Researchers from the Bryoantar and Mycoantar projects, which study plants and fungi, respectively, in Antarctica, collected soil samples from that region and compared it with another, on the same island, which is protected and only accessed with special licenses.
Where there is liberated tourism, DNA of plants such as Cannabis sativa, onion and grapes was found through genetic sequencing of these samples. On the protected side, none of this was found.
“It does not mean that these plants have their feet, but it could be that they were introduced there by means of pollen (brought in by the wind) or by food, hair or the shoes of tourists,” says botanist Paulo Câmara, professor at UnB (University of Brasilia) that researches plants in Antarctica.
In this technique called metagenomics, researchers collect samples from the ground, snow or air.
In the Comandante Ferraz Station laboratory, they undergo chemical reactions that make it possible to extract DNA from cells, followed by genetic sequencing. Finally, they are compared with genetic material in databases.
With the same technique, microbiologist Luiz Rosa, professor at UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), also managed to identify DNA from fungi introduced on the island Deception, in the part released for tourism.
“In the area with tourists, we detect fungi that cause opportunistic diseases in humans because they resist various temperatures. In Whalers Bay, they range from 100 ° C to 0 ° C. These fungi grow in this environment. ”
The most striking are some species of genus Aspergillus, that can infect man. Clinical manifestations include subcutaneous infections, hypersensitivity reactions (allergic aspergillosis) and lung disease (pulmonary aspergillosis), which can affect immunocompromised people.
“In this type of cruise tourism in Deception, there are many elderly people who stay in the natural pools as if they were hot tubs. The cold affects the immune system and people are more susceptible to diseases that can be caused by these opportunistic fungi ”, explains Rosa.
According to him, were found Aspergillus that grow at a temperature of 37 ° C, the human body temperature.
“This is the first requirement to say that a fungus is pathogenic to humans. You may think that in Antarctica it is very cold, but the fungus is there. It grows at 5 ° C, 10 ° C, 25 ° C and 37 ° C ”, he says.
According to the microbiologist, tourists can either bring these species of fungus or they can be infected by those that are already circulating on the island, if the autoimmune system is compromised.
Based on these findings, the researchers will monitor the environmental impact in the region. Antarctica is the place that warms the most on the planet, so it is possible that in the future these invasive species of both fungi and plants will establish themselves on the continent, replacing native ones.
"We need to know if what is coming was introduced by the man, if the person went there and planted a jackfruit tree or if the plant arrived naturally (by the wind, for example) and deserves to be there."
This is only possible with this type of monitoring, based on this molecular signature that will tell you where the plant or fungus came from.
According to Câmara, the work may also serve as a subsidy for future public policies on the management of conservation areas, including authorizing or vetoing tourism in these Antarctic regions.
Today, there is an association that regulates Antarctic tourism, but the control is difficult. "There is nothing to stop a ship from bringing tourists, there is no way to arrest someone who has no authorization," says the researcher.
Reporter Cláudia Collucci traveled to Antarctica at the invitation of the Brazilian Navy
(tagsToTranslate) antarctica (t) island (t) tourist destinations (t) DNA (t) sheet