Skip to main content

Donal T. Manahan on quest to understand biological adaptation

Thumbnail
Donal T. Manahan researches the adaptations of organisms to the changing environment of the ocean. His work has taken him to all the way to Antarctica. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)

You're out on the ice collecting samples, and a storm starts to blow in. The helicopter can't come to get you, so what do you do? Well, you raise a tent and heat three water bottles. You put one under each arm, and one at your groin. They'll keep you warm enough to sleep for three hours until the cold rattles you awake.

Donal T. Manahan remembers the story with fondness.

"I love that," he says. "It brought back so many childhood memories. . . . I always enjoyed roughing it."

Manahan, a biologist at the University of Southern California who has led more than 20 research expeditions to Antarctica, traces his love for the cold-weather quest to happy times in childhood exploring the bracing North Atlantic coast outside Dublin.

His work of the last three decades is providing insight into how to feed the burgeoning human population of the future.

"We've got to come up with 30 percent more food," says Manahan, the vice dean for students at USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is learning how to identify baby oysters that are more resilient and that grow up faster than others. "I believe that these kinds of organisms are going to be the soybean of the ocean."

His focus on the adaptations of organisms to the changing environment of the ocean laid the groundwork for these discoveries.

He launched an independent career as a scientist at USC after developing rigorous quantitative tools in chemistry during postdoctoral work under the mentorship of Grover Stephens at the University of California at Irvine.

At USC, Manahan went after the question of why the larvae of sea urchins and mollusks thrived in the ocean. Basic biology seemed to insist that larvae in the ocean would lose weight during development. But they gained weight.

Manahan likened it to a person on a diet who keeps gaining weight. "There had to be a pizza out there," he explains.

So he set out to find the "missing pizza\ that factored into the development of the animals, and he discovered that the larvae could consume amino acids that were present in ocean water.

"The ocean is a soup of organic material . . . it's very very dilute. Can you really suck up those nutrients? A lot of people were very skeptical that this could happen, and I showed that it could."

Over time, and with the help of Eric Davidson, a developmental biologist at the California Institute of Technology, his research tools shifted from quantitative physiological analysis into molecular biology. Davidson let Manahan work in his lab for a year to learn to study genes.

Those tools led to more surprising discoveries.

Manahan and a research team discovered in 2001 that these small organisms in the Antarctic ocean could make proteins from genes for 25 times less energy than any other organism.

"That was quite a shocker," Manahan said. It was so shocking that they sat on the discovery for a while to verify it. The Antarctic animals, they confirmed, could synthesize proteins at the same high rate as animals in the tropics.

He made these discoveries after going through some rough learning experiences working in Antarctica.

"To walk out on ice sheets is not like walking down to the seashore," he says. Just the logistics of sampling, he says, can push people to despair. You have to helicopter out to the site. Then you need special drilling machines. "And then the animal has died," Manahan says, \"before you get back, because it got too warm."

He read the books of early Antarctic explorers to learn how they managed challenges, and he subscribes to some basic tenets as a leader of expeditions.

First of all, you can't underestimate how hard it is to work there. Also, as a scientist, you have to overcome bias about how biochemistry will work in extreme cold. "It's not going to just go slower," Manahan says. And you have to watch the dynamics of a group where not every scientist feels strong in the environment, and where people get cranky under the midnight sun.

Having learned those lessons, he has opened the door for young scientists to learn the secrets of the Antarctic through the so-called "university on ice," a training program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation for nearly 20 years.

In addition to an impressive list of accolades, including the Outstanding University Service Award at USC and an appointment as a lifetime national associate of the U.S. National Academies, Manahan has been granted a permanent and tangible tribute in Antarctica.

Manahan Peak -- it stands at over 6,000 feet near the original campsites of explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Manahan has seen it from the air.

"A dangerous place," he says, and he cracks a little smile.