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A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 15 October 2014


Liquid water has been known to occur beneath the Antarctic ice sheet for more than 40 years1, but only recently have these subglacial aqueous environments been recognized as microbial ecosystems that may influence biogeochemical transformations on a global scale2,3,4. Here we present the first geomicrobiological description of water and surficial sediments obtained from direct sampling of a subglacial Antarctic lake. Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) lies beneath approximately 800 m of ice on the lower portion of the Whillans Ice Stream (WIS) in West Antarctica and is part of an extensive and evolving subglacial drainage network5. The water column of SLW contained metabolically active microorganisms and was derived primarily from glacial ice melt with solute sources from lithogenic weathering and a minor seawater component. Heterotrophic and autotrophic production data together with small subunit ribosomal RNA gene sequencing and biogeochemical data indicate that SLW is a chemosynthetically driven ecosystem inhabited by a diverse assemblage of bacteria and archaea. Our results confirm that aquatic environments beneath the Antarctic ice sheet support viable microbial ecosystems, corroborating previous reports suggesting that they contain globally relevant pools of carbon and microbes2,4 that can mobilize elements from the lithosphere6 and influence Southern Ocean geochemical and biological systems7.

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Figure 1: Locator map of the WIS and SLW.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic analysis of SSU gene sequences obtained from the SLW water column, surficial sediment (0–2 cm) and drilling water.
Figure 3: Morphological diversity of microbial cells in the SLW water column.

Accession codes

Primary accessions

Sequence Read Archive

Data deposits

The SSU sequence data are deposited in the NCBI SRA database under the accession number SRP041285.


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The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project was funded by National Science Foundation grants (0838933, 0838896, 0838941, 0839142, 0839059, 0838885, 0838855, 0838763, 0839107, 0838947, 0838854, 0838764 and 1142123) from the Division of Polar Programs. Partial support was also provided by funds from NSF award 1023233 (B.C.C.), NSF award 1115245 (J.C.P.), the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (1247192; A.M.A.), the Italian National Antarctic Program (C.B.), and fellowships from the NSF’s IGERT Program (0654336) and the Montana Space Grant Consortium (A.B.M.). Logistics were provided by the 139th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron of the New York Air National Guard, Kenn Borek Air, and by many dedicated individuals working as part of the Antarctic Support Contractor, managed by Lockheed-Martin. The drilling was directed by F. Rack; D. Blythe, J. Burnett, C. Carpenter, D. Duling (chief driller), D. Gibson, J. Lemery, A. Melby and G. Roberts provided drill support at SLW. L. Geng, B. Vandenheuvel, A. Schauer and E. Steig provided assistance with the stable isotopic analyses. We thank J. Dore for assistance with the nutrient analysis.

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Authors and Affiliations




The manuscript was written by B.C.C. and J.C.P.; A.M.A. generated and analysed the molecular data; C.B., A.C.M. and M.L.S. conducted and interpreted the chemical measurements; S.P.C. and K.C. provided geophysical data; J.A.M. obtained and examined the CTD data; A.B.M. and T.J.V. contributed and analysed physiological and biogeochemical data; M.L.S. conducted and interpreted the isotopic analyses; and T.J.V. provided the micrographs. All authors contributed to the study design and acquisition of samples and/or data.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Brent C. Christner or John C. Priscu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Table 1 Crustal and seawater components to SLW waters
Extended Data Table 2 Summary of parameters for the SLW SSU gene sequence data

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Christner, B., Priscu, J., Achberger, A. et al. A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet. Nature 512, 310–313 (2014).

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