Headed by the Professor of St Petersburg University Dmitry Vlasov, a team of St Petersburg University biologists studied how anthropogenic human activities change the ecological and cenotyc structure of microbial communities in the Arctic and Antarctic. Under the influence of external factors, the number of opportunistic microorganisms is growing, and they become more resistant to stress.

Vigorous economic activity in the areas of polar stations leads to pollution of the polar regions. The anthropogenic load on the ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic is locally determined by anthropogenic impact and household waste. Under the influence of people, the sanitary-microbiological situation in the areas of settlements is changing. Pollution accumulates in soils and the aquatic environment. These factors lead to the creation of conditions for the development of conditionally pathogenic microorganisms that are sensitive to external influences.

The study was carried out in the framework of the project «Ecological-Cenotyc and Molecular-Genetic Characterization of Microbial Communities in Key Areas of the Polar Landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic» (No. 16-04-01649). It was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. The results of the work were published in the journal «Contemporary Problems of Ecology».

In order to study this phenomenon in detail, the St Petersburg scientists investigated all of the habitats of microorganisms: water and air; ground and soil; ice and snow; as well as anthropogenic materials. In the Arctic, work was carried out on the Spitsbergen archipelago, in the village of Barentsburg, as well as on board expedition ships while sailing along the Northern Sea Route.

Experts have found that the number of some microorganisms is directly dependent on the presence of people. Such a conclusion was made possible by a comparative analysis of the microbiota in all Russian permanently operating Antarctic stations and territories remote from the polar settlements. For example, the content of fungi in the air — airborne fungi — is directly dependent on the presence of man.

In the habitats of polar explorers, we studied air samples outside and inside the premises. It turned out that in the open air both in the Arctic and in Antarctica the number of microbes and their diversity is much lower than in the rooms. The data obtained indicate that many micromycetes enter the Antarctic together with humans.

Dmitry Vlasov, Head of the Research Group, Professor at St Petersburg University

At the same time, in the residential and working areas of the polar stations, mainly opportunistic micromycetes accumulate. Their numbers are especially noticeable where there is an open growth of colonies inside the premises. Prolonged contact of polar workers with these microorganisms can lead to: a weakening of the immune system; the manifestation of allergic reactions; and a general deterioration of health. For this reason, scientists pay attention to the need for continuous monitoring of the microbiological situation at the Russian polar stations in both the Antarctic and the Arctic.

Another discovery of the scientists is connected with the principle of superdominance, when several of the most adapted species of microorganisms are found in all environments of polar latitudes and demonstrate tremendous resistance to external factors.

«Many microbes in Antarctica exist in communities that are commonly called biofilms. The composition of biofilms includes not only the cells of microorganisms, but also the products of their vital activity. As a result, the participants of such a community significantly expand the range of power sources, and additional protection from external factors appears. All this gives a lot of advantages in conditions of stress, and organisms grow faster,» said Dmitry Vlasov, a Professor at St Petersburg University.

All colonies of microorganisms that were collected for research are used by St Petersburg University scientists to create specialised collections. Experts continue to study these samples in the laboratory. In perspective, polar strains may be of interest to biotechnologists. For example, in conditions of low temperatures, some types of microorganisms are able to settle in oil-polluted areas and decompose this oil, others become producers of biologically active substances and antibiotics.