I’m Freezing!

by Barbara Walvoord

Now that we’ve had the first really hard freeze, all life at Lathrop must adapt.

Our hawks and butterflies will fly thousands of miles to bask in Mexican sunshine; our bobcats and chickadees will grow heavy fur coats or downy feathers and keep hunting to fuel their bodies; our bears will burn their summer’s body fat as they hibernate. Our mice will try to come indoors.

But some of our cold-blooded fish, amphibians, insects, bacteria, and fungi will manage to live in frozen water or mud.

How do they do that? They produce “ice-structuring proteins” that bond to the surfaces of ice crystals to change the structure of the ice or prevent its formation.

These proteins have been discovered during our lifetimes. A Norwegian scientist, in 1950, set out to discover how arctic fish can survive in water colder than the freezing temperature of their blood. Since then, ice-structuring proteins have been found even in plants.

We humans not only observe nature in awe, but of course we also try to capture it. Scientists are trying to extend crop growing seasons, raise farm fish in colder waters, treat hypothermia, or protect a human heart as it is shipped in ice from a Colorado snowmobile accident to a Boston hospital for transplant. (No word yet on protecting an in situ heart from the sorrows of a hard, cold world, or a love potion that could thaw an icy response to your courtship.)

But if ice cream is one of your coping mechanisms, you may have noticed that nowadays the ice cream in your freezer less often forms those texture-destroying ice crystals that turn it from creamy to chalky. Yep. It may contain an ice-structuring protein, thanks to your local Atlantic cod. And next spring, when our frogs, beetles, and salamanders emerge from the icy mud, we can thank nature’s amazing proteins.

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