Seeking Answers at the Bottom of the World

A UAB biology professor has made more than 1,000 dives into the Antarctic Ocean looking for scientific insights that could lead to life-altering breakthroughs.

Charles Amsler does a video transect on one of his many Antarctic dives. Photo by Maggie Amsler.

There are times when getting to work is an amazing two-step process for UAB professor Charles Amsler. First, he steps onto one of the most remote locations in the world. Then he goes off the deep end and steps into a vibrant underwater ecosystem that few people have ever seen.

In the Zodiac boat on the Lemaire Channel. Photo by Maggie Amsler

Amsler’s out-of-town office is the icy continent of Antarctica, whose research-heavy population rarely exceeds 4,000 people. Once there, he leaves that rare air for even rarer water. Amsler has plunged into the frigid Antarctic Ocean more than 1,000 times in his life, seeking information that can potentially help lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs, healthier food crops and insights into climate change.

“I love the Antarctic and all the time I’ve spent there,” says Amsler, a professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham department of biology, who has been making trips to the continent since 1985. “There are a lot of days when the weather is really bad, and it’s desolate with very few plants and animals. But the scenery and grandeur of the place is amazing. It’s something a photograph can’t describe.

In the Zodiac on Marguerite Bay. Photo by Gina Pickton.
Former doctoral students Kate Schoenrock (left) and Julie Schram with an ocean acidification experiment at Palmer Station. Photo by Jim McClintock.
Red seaweeds in a concrete substrate in a chemical ecology study. Photo by Sabrina Heiser.

“And underwater in Antarctica is a completely different world from above the water. There are giant seaweed forests and rich animal communities. There’s all this life under the water in Antarctica, and so little above. But they are both extraordinary places.”

Amsler grew up enjoying the water, both from his Pennsylvania hometown along the shore of Lake Erie and during annual family trips to the Atlantic coast of South Carolina. He says by the time he was in junior high school he already knew he wanted to become a marine biologist.

- Sponsor -

But Amsler’s path to the bottom of the world truly started while taking a class in phycology — that’s the study of algae — at the Duke University Marine Lab. Not only did Amsler discover that he was fascinated with this field of study, he also met a fellow student named Maggie, whom he eventually married.

“I must have been primed to make long-term commitments, because I found my wife and a career at the same time,” Amsler says.

Into the water go Amsler (left) and Sabrina Heiser. Photo by Maggie Amsler.

This pairing proved to be especially important for Amsler a few years later, when Maggie began working with DePaul University biologist Mary Alice McWhinnie. In the mid-1970s, McWhinnie became the first female scientist to work at the United States Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station research lab, which later named its science center in her honor.

Maggie made a trio of research trips to Antarctica in the 1980s, and each time returned home with vivid tales of the continent’s striking beauty and vastness. Intrigued, Amsler joined her on a project in 1985 as a volunteer field assistant, and, says he, “just fell in love with the place.”

Celebrating 1,000 dives are, from left, Amsler, doctoral student Hannah Oswalt and Maggie Amsler. Photo by Julie Schram.

A decade later, Amsler found a way to make these Antarctic excursions on a regular basis. His college focus had been on phycology, but he spent several years in the early 1990s working as a research associate in the microbiology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1994, he saw an ad that UAB was looking to hire a phycologist who could teach microbiology.

“The job (description) was almost like it was written just for me,” Amsler says. “I had a bruise on my sternum for a week from my chin hitting it when my mouth dropped open. I had friends who saw that ad and said, ‘That’s your job.’ UAB literally was looking for someone like me. I’ve been very happy here ever since. It’s been a really good fit.”

With funding support from the National Science Foundation, Amsler has made research trips to Antarctica nearly every year since 2000, and he has been the lead or co-lead on more than a dozen of them. He says the location’s remote nature provides a purity of interactions among plants and sea life that simply cannot be duplicated most other places. “You can’t do at Dauphin Island [where UAB is part of the Sea Lab consortium] what we’re doing in Antarctica,” Amsler says.

What Amsler does is dive to the ocean floor off the Antarctic coast to observe and collect organisms, which are then taken to the local laboratories for further research. Because the water is so cold, Amsler has to wear dive gear that is heavier than normal — “The gloves are almost like boxing gloves,” he says — and must resurface within 30 to 40 minutes.

“The main goal of our research is simply trying to understand how the world works. How organisms interact with each other and how communities are structured,” Amsler says. “But everything that one does should have a broader impact, and the broader impacts of our work are very highly medical.”

For example, one area of research has focused on ways that seaweed and sponges defend themselves from predators that try to eat them. Amsler says they have discovered that some of these organisms produce compounds that make them taste bad, and others that disturb the digestion of the predator so it either can’t eat much or simply doesn’t want to. Amsler says research into these compounds can lead to significant scientific and medical discoveries.

“Chemists refer to these things as natural products,” Amsler says. “Penicillin is a natural product. It’s something that a fungus makes not to cure a disease in humans, but for a physiological thing that a fungus wants. Over half of all the pharmaceuticals that are used today are based on natural products, on something that the plants or animals were making for some other reason.”

Ocean acidification study at Palmer Station. Photo by Charles Amsler.

Compounds that show promise in the initial Antarctic research are then sent to labs throughout the country, ranging from the National Cancer Institute to UAB’s own Cystic Fibrosis Research Center. Amsler notes that in 2016, testing on an extract from an Antarctic sponge discovered a new chemical, dubbed darwinolide, which has proven in lab tests to be 98% effective against the MRSA pathogen, a key source of staph infections in hospitals and nursing homes.

“We’re discovering things that can be a backbone that chemists can stick other things on,” Amsler says, “(creating) leads for compounds that can potentially help fight cancer or nasty infections.”

Amsler says these studies also can help in agricultural production. If there is a way that seaweed deters predators from eating it, can those compounds also be used on food crops against insects and other pests? In addition, Amsler is examining ocean acidification and the reduction in sea ice resulting from climate change. The impact this is having on the underwater communities of the Antarctic might offer clues of what the future will bring worldwide.

Amsler was scheduled to return to the Antarctic in December or January, which is the warmest time of the year there, but the trip was postponed because of COVID-19. But as soon as he can, Amsler says he will go back, because there is still plenty to learn. “You can send cameras or dredges, but nothing is as good as seeing the communities yourself up close,” Amsler says. “So much of what I’ve learned about these communities has been because of observations I’ve made on all these dives.”

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox