July 19, 2021 #SustainableChile #Science and Knowledge.

The guardian of Antarctica's native plants

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Biologist Maraly Cuba keeps in a laboratory at the University of Concepción more than 15,000 plants of the only two species of flowers native to the Antarctic territory, a fundamental task in the conservation of biodiversity.

Only two native species of flowering plants grow in Antarctica: Deschampsia antarctica, a wheat grass, and Colobanthus quitensis, a member of the carnation family.

In 2009, after her first trip to Antarctica, biologist Maraly Cuba began her collection of these plants native to the White Continent. To date, she keeps more than 15,000 plants in the laboratory of the Los Angeles campus of the Universidad de Concepción - where she is a researcher and full professor - with the aim of studying the particular characteristics of these species that survive extreme climatic factors.

"They are the only two plants that live naturally in Antarctica, therefore, they are giving us indications that they have some special characteristics that allow them to live and adapt to these conditions that are very extreme for other plants. They must have something special that allows them to live and develop in those conditions", says the Cuban scientist who arrived in our country 23 years ago to do her doctorate in Biochemistry at the University of Chile and currently resides in the Biobío Region.

The biologist explains that one of the advantages of maintaining and propagating these plants in a laboratory is to be able to do research without the need to travel constantly to Antarctica, thus reducing the carbon footprint and the human impact on the territory where these species grow.

Regarding the effects of global warming, the scientist maintains that these Antarctic plants have shown to have the capacity and resilience to adapt to the changes and continue to develop in the new environmental conditions, even increasing the populations of these species in some areas. However, the main danger lies in the appearance of new species due to the more favorable conditions, which may become invasive and eventually compete with the species that live naturally in Antarctica.

The maintenance of these thousands of plants in the laboratory is the responsibility of the biologist and her students. During the pandemic, as the university stopped receiving students in its classrooms, the researcher has had to take extreme care of the Antarctic plants, even taking them home for the day to work on them and then returning them to the campus. "It's fun work, but meticulous," stresses Maraly, who in 2018 received the Antarctic Science Prize awarded by the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

"The genetic heritage of a country is extremely important because it is part of the conservation of biodiversity," says the researcher, adding that she is currently working on a project in collaboration with the Yucatan Scientific Research Center in Mexico that seeks to decipher the response mechanisms of these plants to salinity.

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