Cryospheric Sciences


Image of the Week – The world in a grain of cryoconite

Fig 1: A single grain of cryoconite (top left) is home to a microscopic city of microbes, revealed here by chlorophyll fluorescence microscopy – a technique that causes photosynthesising microbes to emit light (top right) and portable DNA sequencing (bottom panel) [credit: Arwyn Edwards]

Microbes growing on glaciers are recognized for their importance in accelerating glacier melting by darkening their surface and for maintaining biogeochemical cycles in Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystem. However, the microbial biodiversity of glaciers remains mysterious. Today, new DNA sequencing techniques are helping to reveal glaciers as icy hotspots of biodiversity.

To see a world in a grain of…cryoconite

Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets are among its most impressive features, yet this majesty conceals their microscopic riches. We must turn to the microscope and the DNA sequencer to reveal the natural history of glaciers. Rather than a grain of sand, this world lies hidden in a grain of cryoconite. Cryoconite ecosystems are microbe-mineral aggregates which darken the surface of glaciers world-wide which – along with algae – enhance absorption of solar energy and promote glacier melting through so-called bioalbedo feedbacks. Microscopy studies from the late 19th and early 20th century reveal that a diverse range of algae, cyanobacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, protists, fungi and even tardigrades live within cryoconite, but it is only in the last decade that we have started to resolve the genetic diversity of life within cryoconite.

From glaciers to genomes…and back again

Considering glaciers are Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystems, we know very little about the genetic diversity of their inhabitants. Of all known glaciers, fewer than 0.05% have any form of DNA datasets associated with them. Such DNA datasets are commonplace for other environments, as demonstrated by the Earth Microbiome Project. From the limited studies performed, it appears the microbial ecosystems of glaciers are no less diverse than temperate environments: even dark, cold and isolated subglacial lakes harbour thousands of bacterial species. As climatic warming increasingly threatens glaciers, unpicking the interactions between microbes and melt is vital, as is establishing the extent to which glacier biodiversity is threatened. Sequencing microbial genomes from glacial ecosystems is therefore urgent.

Fig 2: Preserving microbial samples from cryoconite for return to the author’s home lab is a conventional approach to studying genetic diversity on glaciers, but the portability of MinION DNA sequencing brings the lab to the field [Credit: Arwyn Edwards].

A DNA sequencer in your rucksack

Such genetic studies have required the collection of samples from glaciers and their return to state-of-the-art laboratories equipped with high throughput DNA sequencers. However, new, portable DNA sequencers are being trialled on cryoconite to permit sequencing of DNA in field labs. Using a pocket-sized DNA sequencer called a MinION connected to the USB port of a laptop, it is possible to extract, sequence and analyse microbial genomes while still in the field. While Nanopore DNA sequencing using MinION devices are increasingly applied to medical emergencies such as Ebola or antibiotic resistance, their highly portable nature means that glacier scientists will be able to collect and analyse microbial genomes while in the field, making the genetic diversity of glaciers accessible.

Who’s who in cryoconite?

Using MinION for DNA sequencing in a field lab at the UK Arctic Station in Ny Ålesund, it was possible to generate rapid profiles of microbial diversity in cryoconite. So who lives in Arctic cryoconite? The most abundant bacterial group identified is a close match to Phormidesmis priestleyi, a filamentous cyanobacterium responsible for engineering the growth of cryoconite grains on Arctic glaciers. In Figure 1 above, Phormidesmis is visible as the bright red, chlorophyll-rich filaments binding together the cryoconite grain. Other cyanobacteria are present, including a species matching sequences from Phormidium autumnale found in an Antarctic lake. However, MinION sequencing is useful in revealing less charismatic microbes. Also abundant within the community are members of the Polaromonas genus. Found in both cold and highly polluted environments worldwide, Polaromonas bacteria are highly flexible in their lifestyles, able to adapt to using highly poisonous compounds as food sources, or even anoxygenic phototrophy (photosynthesis without using water or producing oxygen) on alpine glaciers. Cryoconite sequences matching DNA from Methylibium found in Tibetan permafrost also hint at the need for flexible metabolism to survive on glacier surfaces. Finally, Ferruginibacter sequences best matching DNA data from iron-rich dust aggregates forming on snow in the Japanese mountains suggest that cold-tolerant iron cycling may be occurring within cryoconite.

In a grain of cryoconite, we see relatives of cyanobacteria from Arctic glaciers, but also Antarctic lakes, metabolically flexible bacteria found in cold and contaminated environments, and even bacteria living by respiring iron on snow in the Japanese mountains. We see a world.

Edited by Joe Cook and Sophie Berger

Dr Arwyn Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Biology at Aberystwyth University and the present Royal Geographic Society’s Walters Kundert Arctic Fellow. His research on genomic diversity in glacial environments is supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

Image of the week – Micro-organisms on Ice!

Image of the week – Micro-organisms on Ice!

The cold icy surface of a glacier doesn’t seem like an environment where life should exist, but if you look closely you may be surprised! Glaciers are not only locations studied by glaciologists and physical scientists, but are also of great interest to microbiologists and ecologists. In fact, understanding the interaction between ice and microbiology is essential to fully understand the glacier system!

Why study micro-organisms on glaciers?

Micro-plants, micro-animals and bacteria live and reproduce in cryoconite ecosystems on the surface of glaciers. Cryoconite is a dark coloured material (Fig. 2) found at the bottom of cylindrical water-filled melt holes (cryoconite holes) on a glacier surface; it consists of dust and mineral powders transported by the wind, and micro-organisms. Cryoconite holes are formed as the dark coloured material causes localised melting, due to reduced albedo (ability of a surface to reflect solar energy).

Figure 2: Example of a Cryoconite hole filled with dark cryoconite material (markers are 10×10 cm) [Credit: Tommaso Santagata – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

Because organisms in cryoconite thrive in extreme conditions, they are very unique and interesting to study. Information about their genetic makeup and chemical structure can help to inform, for example, medical and pharmaceutical sciences. Currently, however, information on their community structure is still limited.

Cryoconite ecosystems are very isolated and must work together to survive and thrive. Some micro-organisms (e.g. micro-algae) can photosynthesise and are able to live autonomously inside cryoconite holes using atmospheric carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and chlorophyll. By this same mechanism, they can find all the molecules essential for their vital and structural needs and consequently they generate most of the molecules necessary for all other living things. For example, the waste product of photosynthesis, oxygen, is essential for the survival of all organisms living in aerobiosis in these communities. Due to their key role in the ecosystem, the micro-algae are known as “primary producers”.

As around 70% of the earth is covered in water, which is colonised by micro-algae, studying the way they survive in extreme conditions and how they contribute to the ecosystem is of global importance – especially at this time of climate change.

The diversity of highly active bacterial communities in cryoconite holes makes them the most biologically active habitats within glacial ecosystems.

Data collections – Six days on THE glacier

The Perito Moreno glacier (Fig. 3) is known as one of the most important tourist attraction in Argentinian Patagonia (see our previous IOW post). Each day, hundreds of people observe the impressive front of this glacier and wait to see ice detachments and hear the loud sound of it’s impacts in the water of Lake Argentino. The glacier takes it’s name from the explorer Francisco Moreno, who studied the Patagonian region in the 19th century. The glacier is more than 30 km in length and an area of about 250 km2, Perito Moreno is one of the main outlet glaciers of Hielo Patagonico Sur (southern Patagonia icefield).

Figure 3: Aerial view of the Perito Moreno
[Credit : Tommaso Santagata – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

In April 2017, after several missions to the Greenland Ice Sheet to study extremophilic micro-organisms (organism that thrive in extreme environments) of ice, a team of Italian and French scientists organised a scientific expedition to study the microbiology of Perito Moreno. The expedition was organised by La Venta and Spélé’Ice and included researchers from several French and Italian Universities (see below for full list)

Perito Moreno is very well known, especially to the La Venta team, who have been organising scientific expeditions in Patagonia since 1991. The microbiological research objectives of this mission were to study the micro-organisms that live on the surface of Perito Moreno and compare them to results obtained in the other polar, sub-polar and alpine regions. The multi-disciplinary research team were able to set up a complex field laboratory, which included a microscope and an innovative small tool size capable of DNA sequencing. This meant that samples could be analysed immediately after their extraction from the ice (Fig. 1).

Getting all the equipment and personnel to achieve this expedition onto the ice was not an easy task. The team and their equipment were transported by boat to a site near the front of the glacier. Equipment then needed to be transported to the Buscaini Refugee, a shelter used as a base-camp by the team (Fig. 4). This took two trips, on foot, of about 7 hours (12 km of trail along the lateral moraine and the ice of the glacier with very heavy backpacks) – not an easy start! Luckily this hardship was somewhat mitigated by the absence of extreme cold, in fact, abnormally hot weather tallowed the team to move and work in t-shirts – not bad!

Figure 4: Walking into the field site along the ice of Perito Moreno – part of the 12km of trail to the Buscaini Refugee shelter
[Credit: Alessio Romeo – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

Thanks to these favourable weather conditions, all the goals were achieved in the short amount of time the team were allowed to camp on the glacier (special permission is needed from the national park to do this). During the five days of activity, many samples were taken and sequenced directly at the camp by the researches. Other important goals, such as morphological comparisons and measurements of the velocity of the glacier through the use of GPS, laser scanning and unmanned aerial vehicles were achieved by another team of researchers (stay tuned for another blog post about this!).

Universities and research institutes involved: University Bicocca of Milan – Italy, University of Milano – Italy, Sciences of the Earth A.Desio – Italy, Natural History Museum of Paris – France, University Diderot of Paris – France, University of Florence – Sciences of the Earth – Italy, University of Bologna – Italy.

Further Reading

Edited by Emma Smith

Tommaso Santagata is a survey technician and geology student at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. As speleologist and member of the Italian association La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche, he carries out research projects on glaciers using UAV’s, terrestrial laser scanning and 3D photogrammetry techniques to study the ice caves of Patagonia, the in-cave glacier of the Cenote Abyss (Dolomiti Mountains, Italy), the moulins of Gorner Glacier (Switzerland) and other underground environments as the lava tunnels of Mount Etna. He tweets as @tommysgeo