Nov 052009
Authors: Chris O’Toole

Diana Wall began her studies in parasitology at the University of Kentucky, but after an internship that involved the terrible smell that came with examining life in horse feces, she shifted her attention to soil biodiversity and the worms.

That shift in interest has taken her on an incredible journey to the most extreme locations in the world.

In her career she has conducted several expeditions in the tropics of South America as well as deserts in other harsh locales.

But, in the years leading up to the early 1990s, the ultimate challenge still lay ahead. The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, more commonly known as polar deserts, are the harshest environment on the planet, with an average high temperature of 17 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Wall presented the findings of her long base of research on small worms called nematodes from several excursions to ice-free areas in Antarctica at the Hilton Thursday night to a crowd of about 45 CSU alumni.

No-life myth dispelled

Although it was previously believed that there was no life in this Mars-like valley,

Wall and her fellow scientists — a group she affectionately refers to as “wormherders” — soon discovered that life was there when they looked at soil samples underneath the microscopes in their laboratories.

Wall’s interest in Antarctica came as a result of her curiosity in how the invertebrates impacted ecosystems as well as her need to find a soil with few species.

The environmental perils — which included extremely cold temperatures — Wall and her fellow scientists endured are the key to the survival of nematodes, which account for 80 percent of the Earth’s animal population.

Her adventure began months before she ever sat foot on a plane as her survival essentials were shipped to Antarctica in August. After extensive preparation, her arrival in Antarctica was uncertain, as the departures of the C-17 and C-130 airplanes depend on usually volatile weather conditions.

When Wall and her team arrived in Antarctica, they were required to complete survival, waste management and radio school.

After completing those, her team scurried to set up a laboratory from scratch as quickly as possible due to the uncertainty of weather in the field. With the most extreme climate in the world, the frequency of bad weather is completely unpredictable, she said.

Wall said the experience in the McMurdo Dry Valleys was extraterrestrial.

“Picture yourself on Mars,” Wall said. “There is absolutely no sound, and there are no plants.”

There, she and her team found the microscopic worms in the soil.

Losing weapons in war against Parkinson’s disease

Nematodes, or unsegmented roundworms, are small, aquatic and see-through. They have been frequently used in studies fighting Parkinson’s disease. They thrive in extremely cold climates. Their capability for survival comes from their ability to lose 99 percent of their water, curl up and move around until they discover a water source.

But, based on recent scientific models, Wall predicts that the nematode population in Antarctica will either decline or relocate to a higher elevation as the climate warms. The studies have shown that the ice in Antarctica is gradually warming beneath the surface, resulting in a warmer climate.

The School of Global Environmental Sustainability, where Wall serves as the director, will show “Climate Refugees,” a documentary that highlights the affects of climate change on population migration. The movie will be shown at 6 p.m. on Nov. 15 in the Lory Student Center Theater.

Staff writer Chris O’Toole can be reached at

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