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HYPOXIA IN THEORY AND PRACTICE: THE FIRST C·I·B VISIT TO SOUTH AMERICA IN 2007

Hypoxia in theory, from left: Marcelo Hermes-Lima, Elrike Marais, Steven Chown and John Lighton.

 

Elrike Marais experiencing hypoxia in practice at 3000 m in the breathtaking Andes.

 

In mid-August, two C·I·B members (that is, Steven Chown and Elrike Marais) set out for South America. Our purpose was several fold. First, we attended the 7th International Congress of Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. We had been invited to deliver a plenary address, on linking molecular physiology to population dynamics, and an oral paper, on the relationship between cold hardiness and strategies for metabolic regulation, respectively. Both papers were well-received by the 280 delegates from more than 20 countries whom attended the meeting. Not surprisingly, given the significance of seasonal flooding in the Amazon, and the consequent exposure of animals to low oxygen concentrations, the responses of animals to hypoxia formed a key theme of the meeting. Both oral and poster presentations addressed a wide range of hypoxia-related issues, from free radical damage during reperfusion, to the biochemistry of downregulation. Oxidative damage and its prevention were also discussed extensively. Talks by Marcelo Hermes-Lima, Vera Maria Almeida-Val, and Eva Phillip and Martin Brand were especially significant and informative. Membranes likewise featured prominently, and the presence of Tony Hulbert added considerable value to an already fascinating meeting. Of course, much comparative environmental physiology was also strongly represented (e.g. by the work of Francisco ‘Pancho’ Bozinovic and his group), and given their enormous influence on the field, talks commemorating the work of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and Peter Hochachka were presented. Both contained important messages: get into the field and away from the office, and don’t be afraid to speculate – conjecture is part of the scientific process.

Salvador has a considerable history and was originally the seat of the Portuguese colonial government before the government was moved following collapse of the slave trade. The city literally has hundreds of churches, including a Baroque one, lined with 800 kg of gold leaf, and dedicated, somewhat ironically, to St Francis of Assisi (who preferred the simple life). The city is intensely tropical, and fruits of many varieties are available. A fresh coconut can be had for a few rand (1 Real). Its tropical nature means that Salvador has also been intensely developed, and little remains of the original Atlantic Coastal Forest that once dominated the area. This is one of the most endangered habitat types on the planet. Nonetheless, fragments can still be seen, and conservation actions are growing. An excellent educational centre (Tamar-Ibama) has been built at one of the main turtle nesting beaches, about an hour north of the city, where four of the five species regularly can be seen, many coming ashore to breed. The beaches are not only popular with the turtles, but also draw sunbathers from Salvador (a city of more than 3 million people). We found ourselves discussing hypoxia (in theory) on one of the beaches during the ‘off season’, which essentially means that a light breeze from the north and water of a mere 24°C are insufficient to attract the locals. That did not prevent us from indulging in the local cuisine, fine weather, swimming and discussions, and our time spent under the palm shade was also rewarded by the sighting of an individual of Halobates micans, a marine waterstrider.

The next stop on our itinerary was Santiago, Chile. It is a city much less tropical than Salvador, but in many ways more spectacular. The Andes tower over a conurbation of more than 5 million friendly people who know a great deal about how to make fine wines, and how to enjoy them with excellent cuisine. Our purpose in Santiago was not so much gastronomic, but biological. The Centre for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity (and particularly the Director Prof. Fabian Jaksic, and one of the centre members, Dr. Alvaro Palma) hosted our visit as part of a growing exchange programme between CASEB and the Centre for Invasion Biology. One of us made a presentation concerning the C·I·B and recent research outcomes, and we had an opportunity to discuss potential future avenues for collaboration with several researchers, post-doctoral associates and students. Gaining first-hand experience of the facilities and research interests of CASEB was very useful, as was experiencing the ease with which things can be done, despite our relatively poor comprehension of a very quick, Chilean Spanish.

Our hosts were exceptionally generous and welcoming. Not only were we given the opportunity to share discussions regarding our science, but Dr. Ernesto Badano also guided us to over 3000 m in the Andes. This was a first taste of hypoxia in practise. The road up to Ernesto ’s field sites (currently under 2.5 m of snow and thus the focus of the ski resorts) included more than 40 hairpin bends (real hairpins), and several excited drivers. Unfortunately, owing to the deep snow, we were unable to find any cushion plants (including an Azorella species closely related to the one found on Marion Island). However, we were rewarded with spectacular views not only of the Andes, but also of several Andean Condors. The entire experience was simply breathtaking, so adding to our hypoxia! After just a few days in Santiago it was abundantly clear that the developing relationship between CASEB and the C·I·B will be well worthwhile. Much exciting collaborative research lies ahead, with opportunities available to senior post-graduates, post-doctoral associates and researchers. Two more exchanges will take place in the near future, with a C·I·B delegation travelling to Santiago and La Serena in late September and a CASEB delegation to Stellenbosch in early 2008.

Our travel was relatively trouble-free, so adding to our enthusiasm for South America. Moreover, the generosity and helpfulness of everyone we met was exceptional. We owe special thanks to Eduardo Bicudo and Craig White for inviting us to the ICCPB meeting in Salvador; the International Society for Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry for support in Brazil; CASEB for support in Chile; Fabian Jaksic, Alvaro Palma, Petra Wallem and Ernesto Badano for being such gracious hosts in Santiago; and Anel Garthwaite for making our travel arrangements so smooth.