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Bacterial communities in glacier forefields of the Larsemann Hills, East Antarctica: Structure, development & adaptation

Bacterial communities in glacier forefields of the Larsemann Hills, East Antarctica: Structure, development & adaptation
Von Felizitas Bajerski


Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Potsdam University, 14469 Potsdam, GERMANY.


Antarctic glacier forfields are extreme environments and pioneer sites for ecological succession. The Antarctic continent shows microbial community development as a natural laboratory because of its special environment, geographic isolation and little anthropogenic influence. Increasing temperatures due to global warming lead to enhanced deglaciation processes in cold-affected habitats and new terrain is becoming exposed to soil formation and accessible for microbial colonisation. Taking into account recent reported warming trends in Antarctica and considering the importance of microorganisms for the Antarctic ecosystem, it is essential to get more information about Antarctic terrestrial microbial communities. This study aims to understand the structure and development of glacier forefield bacterial communities, especially how soil parameters impact the microorganisms and how those are adapted to the extreme conditions of the habitat. To this effect, a combination of cultivation experiments, molecular, geophysical and geochemical analysis was applied to examine two glacier forfields of the Larsemann Hills, East Antarctica. Culture-independent molecular tools such as terminal restriction length polymorphism (T-RFLP), clone libraries and quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) were used to determine bacterial diversity and distribution. Cultivation of yet unknown species was carried out to get insights in the physiology and adaptation of the microorganisms. Adaptation strategies of the microorganisms were studied by determining changes of the cell membrane phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) inventory of an isolated bacterium in response to temperature and pH fluctuations and by measuring enzyme activity at low temperature in environmental soil samples.

The two studied glacier forefields are extreme habitats characterised by low temperatures, low water availability and small oligotrophic nutrient pools and represent sites of different bacterial succession in relation to soil parameters. The investigated sites showed microbial succession at an early step of soil formation near the ice tongue in comparison to closely located but rather older and more developed soil from the forefield. At the early step the succession is influenced by a deglaciation-dependent areal shift of soil parameters followed by a variable and prevalently depth-related distribution of the soil parameters that is driven by the extreme Antarctic conditions. The Culture-independent community analysis reveals a high bacterial diversity and abundance. The dominant taxa in the glacier forefields are Actinobacteria, Acidobacteria, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Cyanobacteria and Chloroflexi. The connection of soil characteristics with bacterial community structure showed that soil parameter and soil formation along the glacier forefield influence the distribution of certain phyla. Several groups like Cyanobacteria, Proteobacteria or Gemmatimonadetes depend on water availability, whereas the most dominant group of the forefields the Actinobacteria is related to the presence of trace elements. In the early step of succession the relative undifferentiated bacterial diversity reflects the undifferentiated soil development and has a high potential to shift according to past and present environmental conditions. With progressing development environmental constraints such as water or carbon limitation have a greater influence.

Adapting the culturing conditions to the cold and oligotrophic environment, the number of culturable heterotrophic bacteria reached up to 108 colony forming units per gram soil and 148 isolates were obtained. Two new psychrotolerant bacteria, Herbaspirillum psychrotolerans PB1T and Chryseobacterium frigidisoli PB4T, were characterised in detail and described as novel species in the family of Oxalobacteraceae and Flavobacteriaceae, respectively. The isolates are able to grow at low temperatures tolerating temperature fluctuations and they are not specialised to a certain substrate, therefore they are well-adapted to the cold and oligotrophic environment.

The adaptation strategies of the microorganisms were analysed in environmental samples and cultures focussing on extracellular enzyme activity at low temperature and PLFA analyses. Extracellular phosphatases (pH 11 and pH 6.5), β-glucosidase, invertase and urease activity were detected in the glacier forefield soils at low temperature (14°C) catalysing the conversion of various compounds providing necessary substrates and may further play a role in the soil formation and total carbon turnover of the habitat. The PLFA analysis of the newly isolated species C. frigidisoli showed that the cold-adapted strain develops different strategies to maintain the cell membrane function under changing environmental conditions by altering the PLFA inventory at different temperatures and pH values. A newly discovered fatty acid, which was not found in any other microorganism so far, significantly increased at decreasing temperature and low pH and thus plays an important role in the adaption of C. frigidisoli.

This work gives insights into the diversity, distribution and adaptation mechanisms of microbial communities in oligotrophic cold-affected soils and shows that Antarctic glacier forefields are suitable model systems to study bacterial colonisation in connection to soil formation.