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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 07:10 GMT
Frozen microbes clue to a cold wash
The Antarctic research team at work.
Dr Thomas's team digs for the microbes in Antarctica
Scientists at the University of Wales think they may have come up with a way of preventing clothes from shrinking in the wash.

A team of researchers in Bangor has discovered that tiny ice creatures in Antarctica can survive at far lower temperatures than was ever thought possible.

Microbes, Univ Ontario
Hardy microbes thrive in the supercold

They are hoping to use the organismsin washing powder to clean clothes at lower temperatures.

And as well as washing clothes whiter than white, the microscopic organisms could also hold the key to finding life on other planets.

Sea ice covers more than 13% of the Earth's surface when at its maximum extent.

Instead of being a lifeless white desert, the pack ice is home to a host of tiny plants and animals that can thrive in numbers so large they can colour the ice brown by their presence.

A new breed of 'astro-biologists' look to these frozen seas for clues about the lifeforms which could exist on frozen planets.

If such creatures are able to adapt to life at -20 Celsius on Earth, a question is raised about whether the same adaptations might work in the far colder, far thicker frozen surfaces of Jupiter's moons - Europa and Ganymede - and even on Mars earlier on.

Researchers are lowered from an ice-breaking ship
Researchers are lowered from an ice-breaking ship

Such work would also cast light on the Earth's own 'snowball' period, when it was thought to be covered in ice scores of metres deep.

Dr David Thomas of the University of Wales Bangor's School of Ocean Science is currently the only scientist in the UK working on the biology of the ice dwellers.

He has discovered many of the sea-ice organisms have enzymes specially adapted to work at high salt concentrations combined with low temepratures.

As a result, a host of antifreeze compounds are produced.

He said: "Once isolated, the enzymes which protect organisms from the effects of cold could also have applications for a host of industries ranging from cleaning agents to food processing."

Dr Thomas has conducted most of his research in Antarctic waters where he has spent more than a year studying deep-freeze lifeforms.

An ice-breaking scientific survey ship
The ice-breaking ship from which Dr Thomas worked

On 27 January, he and colleague Andreas Krell will journey to a remote field station on the Arctic coast of Russia to conduct scientific studies on the sea ice in the White Sea.

Normally sea-ice scientists work from ice-breaking research ships to collect their samples.

This time they will be driving to a field station and conduct their work from the shore.

See also:

16 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Tough bugs point to life on Mars
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Water may flow on Mars
26 Jun 98 | Sci/Tech
'Ice bacteria' clue to life on Mars
12 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Martian 'bacteria' matched to Earth
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
What now for Mars?
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