Arctic Gypsum Endoliths: A Biogeochemical Characterization of a Viable and Active Microbial Community
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Extreme environmental conditions such as those found in the polar regions on Earth are thought to test the limits of life. Microorganisms living in these environments often seek protection from environmental stresses such as high UV exposure, desiccation and rapid temperature fluctuations, with one protective habitat found within rocks. Such endolithic microbial communities, which often consist of bacteria, fungi, algae and lichens, are small-scale ecosystems comprised of both producers and consumers. However, the harsh environmental conditions experienced by polar endolithic communities are thought to limit microbial diversity and therefore the rate at which they cycle carbon. In this study, we characterized the microbial community diversity, turnover rate and microbe-mineral interactions of a gypsum-based endolithic community in the polar desert of the Canadian high Arctic. 16S/18S/23S rRNA pyrotag sequencing demonstrated the presence of a diverse community of phototrophic and heterotrophic bacteria, archaea, algae and fungi. Stable carbon isotope analysis of the viable microbial membranes, as phospholipid fatty acids and glycolipid fatty acids, confirmed the diversity observed by molecular techniques and indicated that present-day atmospheric carbon is assimilated into the microbial community biomass. Uptake of radiocarbon from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing during the 1960s into microbial lipids was used as a pulse label to determine that the microbial community turns over carbon on the order of 10 yr, equivalent to 4.4 gCm(-2) yr(-1) gross primary productivity. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) micrographs indicated that mechanical weathering of gypsum by freeze-thaw cycles leads to increased porosity, which ultimately increases the habitability of the rock. In addition, while bacteria were adhered to these mineral surfaces, chemical analysis by micro-X-ray fluorescence (mu-XRF) spectroscopy suggests little evidence for microbial alteration of minerals, which contrasts with other endolithic habitats. While it is possible that these communities turn over carbon quickly and leave little evidence of microbe-mineral interaction, an alternative hypothesis is that the soluble and friable nature of gypsum and harsh conditions lead to elevated erosion rates, limiting microbial residence times in this habitat. Regardless, this endolithic community represents a microbial system that does not rely on a nutrient pool from the host gypsum cap rock, instead receiving these elements from allochthonous debris to maintain a more diverse and active community than might have been predicted in the polar desert of the Canadian high Arctic.