Antarctic plants repair themselves

November 26, 2001

Dutch researchers funded by NWO have studied the effects of the hole in the ozone layer on the vegetation in Antarctica. The repair mechanisms of lichens and mosses appear to be effective even at low temperatures. Nevertheless, the ecology of the Antarctic is still under threat. The rise in temperature caused by the greenhouse effect is doing irreparable damage.

Between 1997 and 2001, Dutch ecologists studied a species of grass, moss and algae and lichens growing on the Antarctic Peninsula. With colleagues from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Yerseke, Daniela Lud investigated the effect of ultraviolet radiation on the growth of the vegetation. In the spring, the Antarctic Peninsula is exposed to harmful UVB radiation due to the hole in the ozone layer.

The researchers placed filters over the vegetation. Half of the filters allowed harmful ultraviolet light to pass through and the rest did not. This allowed the ecologists to determine whether the ultraviolet light influences photosynthesis and the concentration of protective pigments in the plant, moss and lichen. They also investigated whether the ultraviolet light damaged the genetic material of the vegetation.

The negative effects of ultraviolet radiation turned out to be only slight. The vegetation contained large quantities of protective pigments. DNA repair mechanisms also operated very effectively at low temperatures. So much for the good news.

The same research project also came to other, less positive conclusions. The team compared exposed sites with somewhat warmer sheltered ones. The temperature did have an influence on the vegetation. Some mosses and Antarctic hairgrass grew faster at the higher temperature, while lichens reacted hardly at all.

The researchers expect that any future rise in temperature in Antarctica will have clear effects on the composition of the vegetation. The grasses and mosses, which grow rapidly, will replace the lichens.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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