Microorganisms living in cryospheric ecosystems have a unique genetic signature

Scientists compile an inventory of endangered microorganisms.


The microbiome of cryospheric ecosystems, the nearly 20% of Earth’s surface where water remains frozen for at least one month of the year, currently figures among the least understood microbiomes on Earth.

Scientists at EPFL‘s River Ecosystems Laboratory (RIVER), within the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), and the Alpine and Polar Environmental Research Centre in Sion (ALPOLE), are running a race against time to understand the microbiome better before it’s too late. A new study generated a comprehensive, comparative inventory of the microorganisms living in cryospheric ecosystems.

They found that this microbiome has unique features and was probably formed early in evolutionary times compared to those in the Earth’s other ecosystems.

The database of the study team contains data from 695 samples gathered from various cryospheric habitats worldwide. It will be a valuable resource for future research on cryosphere microbiology and climate change implications.

By combining machine learning, statistics, and their database, scientists identified which bacteria are the most prevalent and abundant in a given part of the cryosphere, for example. Using these methods, they can also identify whether a sample was collected from the cryosphere with 96% accuracy.

Massimo Bourquin, a Ph.D. student at EPFL’s River Ecosystems Laboratory (RIVER), said“We grouped microorganisms based on similar features. In doing so, we discovered the particularities of this microbiome – which was shaped over millions of years of evolution and adaptation to extreme temperatures and a nutrient-poor environment – and is today very much under threat.”

“Much work remains to be done by the RIVER scientists. Discovering new bacteria and their particularities always opens up promising avenues of research. For instance, his study indicates that the microbiome in glacier-fed streams differs from that in other cryospheric ecosystems – which is very intriguing from a scientific point of view because it can help us better understand what makes the microorganisms in glacier-fed streams, the main focus of the Vanishing Glaciers project, so unique.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Bourquin, M., Busi, S.B., Fodelianakis, S. et al. The microbiome of cryospheric ecosystems. Nat Commun 13, 3087 (2022). DOI: 1038/s41467-022-30816-4
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