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Dr Heo Chong Chin (second from right) explaining the details of the expedition to the Antarctica to Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Azraai Kassim (fifth from left) and Mohd Nasaruddin Abd Rahman (fourth from left). -NSTP/Faiz Anuar

FIVE researchers from three universities are embarking on a 22-day expedition from South Korea’s King Sejong Station in the Antarctica starting next Monday as part of a study to understand nutrient recycling in the polar region.

Titled “Necrobiome community structure and soil chemistry profiles associated with penguin carcasses and its correlation with bone density under Antarctic climate”, the expedition will see team members collecting samples from dead penguins and the soil.

The team is led by forensic entomologist Dr Heo Chong Chin of Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Faculty of Medicine.

His team members are UiTM medical microbiologist Associate Professor Dr Jamal Hussaini, UiTM medical radiographer Hafizi Mahmud, Universiti Malaya geneticist Dr Lucas Low Va Lun and Universiti Malaysia Terengganu soil chemist Dr Siti Sofo Ismail.

Due to the fairly mild climate around King Sejong Station — a research facility under the Korea Antarctic Research Programme — many animals are drawn to the area for breeding and other activities.

Established in 1988 in the Barton Peninsula of King George Island, the station is named after King Sejong the Great of Joseon (1397-1450).

Heo said the samples would be collected near penguin colonies not far from the station and would be brought back to Malaysia for analysis.

“The purpose of the research is to understand the ecology of carrion decomposition in the Antarctica and apply the knowledge in the conservation of polar biodiversity, global food security and forensic archeology.”

He said the team would be focusing on the decomposition stages of penguin carcasses and their correlation with the necrobiome (community of organisms associated with animal decay), soil chemistry and bone density.

This will involve micro-CT scans of carcass bones and DNA sequencing of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, arthropods and helminths found in the samples.

Their results will be added to the big data of the necrobiome in the South Pole.

UiTM Faculty of Medicine forensic entomologist Dr Heo Chong Chin.

Asked about the impact of the research, Heo said the identification of the necrobiome could be used in forensics and archaeological purposes to enhance the understanding of animal migration, geology and adaptation to extreme environments.

“The findings will also enhance the understanding of soil nutrients in the polar region as it undergoes an effective nutrient cycle in an extreme environment.

“This fundamental concept is vital for agriculture worldwide to ensure sustainable food production, and it is possible that in future, humans may be able to cultivate crops on icy lands,” said Heo.

Funded by a grant from Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM), the project will span over three years until May 2022.

It is expected to produce publications, intellectual properties and ideas, and one PhD graduate, besides building international polar research linkages and encouraging public education and community outreach.

UiTM vice-chancellor Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Azraai Kassim said apart from raising awareness on the role of polar regions in the Earth’s ecosystem, the expedition could develop Malaysia’s scientific capacity and increase its knowledge in Antarctica science.

“It continually puts Malaysia on the map as far as polar research is concerned and this will strengthen our research capacities in global frontier

sciences,” he said.

YPASM chief executive officer Mohd Nasaruddin Abd Rahman said Malaysia could initiate, develop and contribute its research capacity in the Antarctica.

“Malaysia is a member of the Antarctic Treaty System and Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).

“Our scientists are actively involved in research and have shared findings and data in SCAR, and they have been used to formulate policies,” he said.

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