Kathrin: Explorer of Ice Planets

When Kathrin Schmidt collects samples for her research, she cannot do without thermal clothing. Because in order to find the objects of her scientific interest in their natural habitat, the 35-year-old regularly visits extremely frosty places. Kathrin is an astrobiologist, works in Seattle at the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington and researches ice algae.

By researching these microorganisms Kathrin hopes to gain exciting insights into life on earth - and not only there: "A better understanding of the ice algae would show us how important the poles are for our food web and that sea ice is an extremely important habitat that must be protected. We can also learn how organisms adapt to extreme environmental conditions, which could give us insights into the potential origin and development of life on other planets".

Ice algae live in sea ice or on its underside and are an important part of the ecosystem on glaciers. Through their photosynthesis they supply other organisms with sugar and other nutrients. Small aquatic animals such as crabs and snails eat the algae and are then eaten by larger Arctic marine animals. Ice algae have their active growth period in spring and summer, when snow and ice melt, because they need liquid water for their growth.


"So far, we know very little about these organisms," explains Kathrin. "For example, we still don't really know how they adapt to the frost periods in sea ice or how they manage to use the small amount of light for their rapid growth in spring."

In order to investigate the characteristics of the ice algae in the laboratory Kathrin has developed a special ice tank. For this purpose, she has equipped a freezer with cylinders in which she cultivates and freezes her algae.

For physiological measurements and genetic analyses, she regularly takes samples of one or two liters of water in laboratory bottles from DWK Life Sciences. In addition to her biological work, Kathrin builds special measuring probes, which enable her to observe the temperature in her algae cylinder very closely.

In doing so she not only simulates sea ice, but also habitats outside the earth: "By studying the ice algae, we may one day find out whether life can exist in places where it is actually considered impossible. Ice planets, for example."