Geologic, chemical and isotopic evidence indicate that Earth has experienced numerous intervals of widespread glaciation throughout its history, with roughly 11% of present day Earth's land surface covered in ice. Despite the pervasive nature of glacial ice both today and in Earth's past and the potential contribution of these systems to global biogeochemical cycles, the composition and phylogenetic structure of an active microbial community in subglacial systems has yet to be described. Here, using RNA-based approaches, we demonstrate the presence of active and endogenous archaeal, bacterial and eukaryal assemblages in cold (0-1°C) subglacial sediments sampled from Robertson Glacier, Alberta, Canada. Patterns in the phylogenetic structure and composition of subglacial sediment small subunit (SSU) ribosomal RNA (rRNA) assemblages indicate greater diversity and evenness than in glacial surface environments, possibly due to facilitative or competitive interactions among populations in the subglacial environment. The combination of phylogenetically more even and more diverse assemblages in the subglacial environment suggests minimal niche overlap and optimization to capture a wider spectrum of the limited nutrients and chemical energy made available from weathering of bedrock minerals. The prevalence of SSU rRNA affiliated with lithoautotrophic bacteria, autotrophic methane producing archaea and heterotrophic eukarya in the subglacial environment is consistent with this hypothesis and suggests an active contribution to the global carbon cycle. Collectively, our findings demonstrate that subglacial environments harbor endogenous active ecosystems that have the potential to impact global biogeochemical cycles over extended periods of time.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by NASA Exobiology Grant NNX10AT31G. We thank the staff at the Biogeosciences Institute at the University of Calgary’s Kananaskis Field Station for use of their laboratory facilities.