FAIRBANKS - When Kent Walters decided to study an obscure Alaska beetle for his doctoral research project, even he admits the idea didn't sound especially sexy or groundbreaking.
Six years later, quite a bit has changed.
The University of Notre Dame student's research on Upis ceramboides, known commonly as the darkling beetle, determined the species contains a previously unknown type of biological antifreeze.
The discovery could potentially change the future of agriculture, medicine and food preservation.
Walters and two other Notre Dame researchers worked with University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Brian Barnes and Todd Sformo on the work. Barnes said the discovery is exciting because the antifreeze molecule works in a different part of the cell and in a different way than other biological chemicals.
The new antifreeze molecule consists of sugar and fat, unlike other biological antifreezes that are made of sugar and protein.
Barnes, the director of the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology, said protein-based molecules form ice crystals inside cell membranes, which damages the cells. It's possible the newly discovered molecule has fatty acids that prevent internal ice crystal formation.
The antifreeze molecule is among the adaptations that helps the darkling beetle survive harsh winters in Interior forests. The beetle doesn't freeze until about minus 18.5 degrees Fahrenheit and is able to survive temperatures as low as 104 degrees below zero.
Barnes cautioned that more research needs to be done, but he said the newly discovered molecule potentially could be used for a range of other areas. Such an antifreeze could help genetically modified crops resist frost or even prevent freezer burn in products such as ice cream. Organ transplants could be aided by a method of cooling that doesn't form damaging ice crystals.
"If this new antifreeze functions that way and could be engineered into human tissues and organs, it increases the possibility of freezing donor organs for prolonged shelf life," Barnes stated in an e-mail.
Walters' discovery came through several fortunate coincidences. His adviser at Notre Dame, Jack Duman, has studied freeze-tolerant insects in Alaska for more than a decade.
When he began his doctoral studies, Walters decided to pursue the same research. Walters said he selected the Upis ceramboides beetle for study largely because University of Alaska scientist Keith Miller had done background research on the species in the 1980s.
The biological antifreeze is only present in low concentrations, which probably is one of the reasons it previously went undetected. For quite a while, Walters said he was confused by the results because known types of biological chemistry couldn't explain the effect.
"It took me a long time to figure it out," he said. "I really struggled with it."
Barnes said researchers are hoping to get funding from the National Science Foundation to study whether other freeze-tolerant animals have the same type of natural antifreeze. Barnes said "many difficult studies ahead" are needed to find out how the antifreeze works and where in the cell it is located.
"I personally believe that it's likely common in other organisms and it just hasn't been looked for," Walters said.
Walters, who earned his doctorate in July, said the antifreeze discovery was an unexpectedly sweet revelation toward the end of his project.
"All in all, I'd say it's not a bad way to go out," Walters said with a chuckle.