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ANCHORAGE - Armed with a sophisticated ice borer, professor Daniel Shain went hunting Sunday on Byron Glacier for a scientific treasure - the tiny, fragile ice worm.
"We know there are millions of worms on Byron Glacier in the summertime and unless they migrate to Florida or something, there aren't too many other places they could be. The prediction is that they dive straight down into the glacier to stay warm," said the Rutgers University professor as he prepared to tackle the glacier about 50 miles southeast of Anchorage.
Beginning today, millions of students worldwide are expected to check www.jasonproject.org on the Internet to go along with Shain and a group of students in Alaska in the JASON Project's "Frozen Worlds" expedition to Alaska. The star of the show is the cold-loving ice worm.
The worms, which are found only in a coastal region extending from Washington to Alaska, spend their entire lives on ice. Their health depends on it. They die if the temperature drops below 20 degrees or above 40 degrees. At room temperature, they disintegrate in 15 minutes.
That's why Shain is interested in them.
"If scientists can unravel the ice worm's secret, we could potentially learn how to keep human organs alive on ice longer than a few hours to help organ transplant patients," he said.
The ice worm, at just 2 to 3 centimeters, also could hold a clue about life on Jupiter's moon Europa, Shain said.
"If there is life elsewhere in the solar system, it's probably on Europa. Conditions on Europa are similar to life here on an Alaska glacier," he said.
The worms might even hold a clue about how to keep a person in a state of suspended animation for space travel, Shain said.
"If we're ever going to travel through space into other galaxies, our life span isn't long enough," he said. "By the time we get there, we'd be dead. But if we understood the ice worm's physiological tricks, we could super-cool ourselves."
Shain expects to find ice worms because the Byron Glacier hosts eight colonies. They will be placed in a plastic tray filled with ice and brought to the Begich Boggs Visitor Center in Portage, where students from schools around the world will interact with the expedition team via the Internet. A second interactive classroom was set up at the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward.
The project, which is being led by National Geographic explorer in residence Robert Ballard, will pair 33 students and teachers from around the globe with a team of scientists.
"All kids are born scientists," Ballard said. "Programs like JASON allow them to experience their true curiosity"
The expedition team will work with students daily on what makes ice worms different from other worms. The young researchers will compare ice worms with a close cousin, a tiny white worm found in gardens and common earthworms. They will measure how well the ice worms respond to light, heat, gravity and chemicals.
"I am hoping to plant a seed in these young researchers' minds, and in the future with this information available, they can take the next step," Shain said.
The $3 million JASON Foundation for Education project, funded by private corporations, will run from today to Saturday, and then from Feb. 2 through Feb. 8. It will air on the National Geographic Channel from 5-6 p.m. EST today through Feb. 1 and Feb. 4-8.
Selina Tolson, a 10th-grader at Hydaburg City School, is part of the iceword research team. Patricia Brown, a ninth-grader at Hoonah High School, will be part of the Sealife Center team.