Microbially mediated biogeochemical cycles in polar ice covered lakes

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Lakes are important sites for globally-relevant biogeochemical cycles mediated by microorganisms. In the Arctic, seasonally ice covered thermokarst lakes are a large component in Earth's carbon cycle due to their methane emissions from organic carbon degradation. In the Antarctic, over 400 unexplored lakes exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet with unknown biogeochemical contributions to the Earth system. This dissertation seeks to investigate the biogeochemical role of microorganisms in the lake habitat and how they interact with the seasonal and permanent ice covers of lakes in polar environments. Microbiologically clean hot water drilling was used to access a subglacial lake beneath Antarctica's ice to collect, for the first time, intact sediment and water samples. Laboratory experiments on Arctic and Antarctic, seasonally and perennially, respectively, ice covered lakes were used to investigate the impact of lake ice freezing regimes on microorganisms. My results show that subglacial lake sediments beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet contain solute ratios that suggest relict marine sediments were deposited during previous interglacial periods. Microbial activity overprints the marine geochemical signature to produce fluxes of ions into the Subglacial Lake Whillans water column, which ultimately drains to the Southern Ocean. Microbial activity in Subglacial Lake Whillans is partially fueled by biologically-formed methane diffusing from below our deepest collected (~38 cm) subglacial sediment samples. The ice above Subglacial Lake Whillans appears to be an important source of molecular oxygen for microorganisms to drive oxidative physiologies. My experimental evidence shows microorganisms incorporate into lake ice cover to, potentially, avoid increasing stressors from progressive lake ice freezing. Taken together, the results from this dissertation reinforce the hypothesis that subglacial environments beneath the Antarctic ice sheet are habitats for life. Further, the microorganisms in subglacial lakes participate in globally-relevant biogeochemical cycles. Here, I extend the extent of the biosphere and show sediments at the base of ice sheets are an active component of the Earth system.




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