Biological activity at the limits of life: Microbial cycling of C, S and N in cold, permanently stratified, hypersaline Lake Vanda, Antarctica.
Monday, 15 December 2014
The lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MCM) are the only perennially ice covered lakes on Earth and are the primary refuge for life in this hyper-arid polar desert. As a result of the ice cover and an uncoupled day/night cycle, the physical and biogeochemical processes in the lakes are highly unusual, with biogeochemical gradients and concentrations of specific compounds often exceeding those found in other aquatic ecosystems on Earth. These lakes are ideal systems for the study of redox-sensitive biogeochemical processes, model systems for understanding the effects of global climate change on polar ecosystems, end-member systems that provide insight into biogeochemical and limnological dynamics in meromictic lakes, analogues for life on other planets, and perfect systems to study microbial life at its thermodynamic limits. Lake Vanda, in the Wright valley, is relatively deep (73 m), hypersaline and has anoxic bottom water. High concentrations of chacotrophic salts results in low water activities that exert further challenges on microbial life. We collected details geochemical profiles of nutrients, major ions, dissolved gases, and redox metabolites and measured rates of microbially-mediated processes that cycle carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in the lakes waters and sediments. Despite the harsh and extreme nature of Lake Vanda and the thermodynamic barriers to microbially-mediated geochemical reactions, microorganisms are not only present in the lake but they mediate a diverse suite of geochemical processes. Statistical correlations between geochemical parameters, microbial activity and microbial community composition shed light on the factors that regulate and limit microbial activity in this unique extreme environment.