30 January, 2024 ,

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will build a new unique science facility at its UK Cambridge headquarters, enabling scientists to understand how organisms that live in cold polar environments evolved and the impact of environmental change on these special ecosystems.

The new Controlled Environment Facility will include a polar marine aquarium (run at -2°C to 0°C), and three environmental experimental rooms (operating at -5°C to 30°C) with precision instruments combined with deep-frozen storage. It will be the only combined low temperature biological storage and experimental facility in the UK and one of three globally.

Polar ecosystems have evolved over many millions of years to live in very cold temperatures and with extremes of light; 24 hours of sunlight in summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter. These ecosystems contain huge amounts of undiscovered biodiversity (it is estimated that there are 20,000 species in the ocean around Antarctica alone), which are under severe threat from climate change. Loss of biodiversity in the polar regions has many consequences beyond ecosystem sustainability and conservation. For example, research at the new facility will enable scientists to identify novel proteins and new compounds for potential applications in medicine, biotechnology, and other industries.

Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of British Antarctic Survey says:

“Our polar regions have unique ecosystems adapted to extreme environments. Climate change and antibiotic resistance are threats to the way we live and our new Controlled Environment Facility will enable world-class collaborative research to develop solutions essential for future generations.

The latest IPCC report recognised that there is currently a knowledge gap in understanding the biology of polar ecosystems and their vulnerability. These facilities will enable research that assimilates cutting edge molecular advances into polar biology and develop new collaborative fields in cold biology with links to cell biophysics, medicine and protein engineering.”

A photo of the BAS Cambridge headquarters
The new Controlled Environment Facility will be based at the BAS headquarters in Cambridge

Professor Melody Clark, Genetics Leader at British Antarctic Survey says:

“This is an exciting time for polar scientists and wider science in general, as research at the new facility will enable a greater understanding of fundamental biology, with a wide range of applications. For instance, researching how cells and proteins perform in the cold could help develop novel solutions for cryobiology, along with insights into human protein-folding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, and creating low energy biological catalysts for Net Zero industries”.

Nigel Garrood, UK Project Manager at British Antarctic Survey says:

“We welcome suppliers to engage with a tender process in early 2024 for the construction works. The facility will continue to increase the provision of world class laboratories at BAS and help our ambition to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040.”

Polar ecosystems are simpler than those in other regions of the world but it is currently unknown if they are more resilient to environmental hazards, as well as climate change. Scientists in the new BAS facility will be able to investigate how pollutants (e.g. metals, micro- and nano-plastics, parasites, diseases) impact polar ecosystems and if the polar environment with cold temperatures and intensive UV is more affected by pollutant and disease toxicity than other global regions.

A group of fish in the water.
The Controlled Environment Facility will investigate how polar ecosystems adapt, including invertebrates such as sea sponges.

Using historical samples in the deep-frozen storage facility, researchers will be able to study how whales, sea birds and seals are impacted by changing food webs. These iconic species are at the top of polar food chains and act as an indicator of high latitude ecosystem health. Scientists will also investigate how climate change and humans directly impact polar fisheries that are an important global resource.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) provided funding of £4.2million for the new facility to replace existing infrastructure at BAS that was coming to the end of its working life. Construction on the new Controlled Environment Facility will begin this spring, with the new facility operational from autumn 2025.