What do we know about glaciers? These are chunks of ice that have been forming over thousands of years. At first glance, it seems that there can be no question of life in them, since no organism can withstand such extreme conditions. But actually it is not. Glaciers are home to a large number of organisms, which form a whole ecosystem in them. Moreover, we are talking not only about bacteria resistant to low temperatures, but also rather large worms. They can be found in glaciers in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in British Columbia and Alaska. They are called “ice worms” (Mesenchytraeus solifugus) and are distant relatives of the well-known earthworms. The size of these invertebrates is relatively small - their length reaches ~ 130 mm, and the diameter is comparable to dental floss. Worms lead a fairly active lifestyle, in the sense that periodically they either crawl to the surface of the glacier, or hide in its depths.
How worms live in glaciers
Iceworms live in colonies. On summer days and evenings, a huge number of them appear on the surface of glaciers in search of food. They eat algae and detritus (a product of tissue decay, that is, the remains of invertebrates). Closer to the morning they hide in the ice for "overnight". And in winter they go deep into the glacier, where they are until the onset of spring.
Some scientists consider shipworms to be the most mysterious creatures on the planet. But the ice worms even bypassed them in this. After all, they have learned to survive perfectly among snow and ice, and they become most active at the freezing point of water. And when the ambient temperature rises to +5 degrees Celsius, these invertebrates die. Most terrestrial creatures are incapable of surviving such conditions without some kind of thermal insulation covering their bodies. But how do ice worms do it?
During the day, colonies of ice worms crawl out to the surface of glaciers
This question interested scientists at Rutgers University, led by Professor of the Department of Zoology and Biology Daniel H. Schein. In their opinion, understanding these biological eccentrics is very important for people, and the study does not tolerate delay. Worms disappear along with glaciers, and, quite possibly, they will soon disappear altogether. If scientists can figure out how worms cope with such extreme conditions, it will help them understand the limits of life on Earth and beyond.
What is the secret of ice worms
According to the laws of biology, when the temperature drops, the body's reactions slow down and the energy level drops. Warm-blooded animals burn more energy to maintain a relatively constant temperature, while cold-blooded creatures become lethargic and even hibernate. But not ice worms.
Scientists at Rutgers University have noticed that their energy levels rise as they cool down. According to one version, a special molecule known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate) endows the worms with this ability. It is a key molecule in the energy processes of any living organism. It is produced using a complex enzyme called ATP synthase, which is nearly identical in all known organisms.
Ice worms have a special genetic mechanism that creates ATP synthase As Daniel H. Schein says, it is an extra bit in DNA that accelerates the production of ATP.
Most other organisms living on Earth died in such conditions, but not ice worms
Evolution is difficult to explain, Shine said, but it is possible that worms have borrowed some of the genetic material from alpine fungi. If so, then this “genetic theft” is especially unusual because “stolen” DNA is usually not incorporated into mitochondria, where ATP is produced.
But the features of ice worms do not end there. In addition to genetic supplementation, they have an altered cellular "thermostat" that allows ATP to be produced at low temperatures. These two changes combine to mean that ice worms have a much higher cellular ATP concentration than most creatures.
In addition, scientists plan to study another theory according to which worms are full of melanin, the same pigment that helps protect human skin from ultraviolet radiation. But, unlike humans, ice worms have melanin throughout the body: in the brain, intestines, muscles. Some studies show that in certain situations, melanin can extract energy from solar radiation. Scientists speculate that this process may also occur in ice worms. At the moment they are checking this version.
How ice worms colonize glaciers
The ability to generate energy at low temperatures is not the only mystery associated with ice worms. Scientists are also interested in how they move from glacier to glacier. To answer this question, it should be understood that these invertebrates are part of an ecosystem that scientists know little about.
Pink finches eat large quantities of ice worms
Observing them, Professor Hotaling and his colleagues discovered five bird species that feed on ice worms. These invertebrates are a vital food source in places like Mount Rainier, where pink finches are caught in large numbers and fed to their young, Hotaling said.
It is possible that birds help worms move from glacier to glacier. Scientists speculate that worms can stick to the feathers or paws of birds. It is possible that some of them survive by passing through the intestines of the bird.
But, so far, these are all just theories. Explorers uncover all the secrets of these creatures. However, there is little time left to solve. Some of the glaciers that once housed worms, such as the Lyall and Lewis glaciers in Washington's northern cascades, have already disappeared. Others are sharply reduced in size. So the Nisqually Glacier on the southern side of Mount Rainier, home to ice worms, is decreasing in diameter by about 90 centimeters every 10 days. That is, the situation in the north is about the same as in the south with the glaciers of Antarctica, which are gradually decreasing, as they quickly break off, turning into giant icebergs.