STATION SCIENCE: Baby its stressful down here!

9 April, 2018

You’re at the bottom of the World, sitting on a freezing rock by the sea in the Antarctic, being pounded by ice bergs – stressful – you bet! And then it gets worse! Some woman comes along, grabs you, paints your shell bright yellow and dumps you 15 metres below the tide! Why on earth…? All in the name of science apparently.

Painting limpets: after experimenting with different colours of nail varnishes our intrepid investigator eschews the traditional red and goes for white and yellow.

They want to know why I (Larry the limpet, at your service!) like living in the intertidal zone being continually bashed by brash ice, whilst my close relatives prefer the more comfy life 15 metres below the surface. Well I’m real tough! I’m constantly on the alert for danger: my shell is extra thick and my stress levels are permanently on high.

My more wimpy cousins couldn’t cope with life up here, they are far too soft. They have thin shells and don’t have much fight in them.

Or so I thought until now? When this lady boffin decides to see what happens when she swaps us over. Will my cousins get beefed up and will I go all wimpy? Not me never! True enough, she and her team did discover that my wimpy cousins soon toughened up, but I stayed tough, always on the alert for being bashed by the next iceberg, even when there weren’t any around?

Aha! That puzzled them! Eventually they worked it out, it’s all to do with this epigenetics lark. There are ways of making your genes stay permanently switched on if you live in a stressful environment (like me). The genes that keep me alert and continually ready for action (my “stress” genes) have been fixed in the on position via something called methylation.

These scientists reckon it’s an important mechanism for understanding adaptation to your local neighbourhood and climate change. Really? Apparently it’s all to do with my upbringing, probably my parents’ fault… honestly, they’ll be bringing in the psychiatrist next, as if the yellow paint wasn’t bad enough…

  • To find out more about this subject, you can read Professor Clark’s paper here