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Microbial formation of labile organic carbon in Antarctic glacial environments


Roughly six petagrams of organic carbon are stored within ice worldwide. This organic carbon is thought to be of old age and highly bioavailable. Along with storage of ancient and new atmospherically deposited organic carbon, microorganisms may contribute substantially to the glacial organic carbon pool. Models of glacial microbial carbon cycling vary from net respiration to net carbon fixation. Supraglacial streams have not been considered in models although they are amongst the largest ecosystems on most glaciers and are inhabited by diverse microbial communities. Here we investigate the biogeochemical sequence of organic carbon production and uptake in an Antarctic supraglacial stream in the McMurdo Dry Valleys using nanometre-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry, fluorescence spectroscopy, stable isotope analysis and incubation experiments. We find that heterotrophic production relies on highly labile organic carbon freshly derived from photosynthetic bacteria rather than legacy organic carbon. Exudates from primary production were utilized by heterotrophs within 24 h, and supported bacterial growth demands. The tight coupling of microbially released organic carbon and rapid uptake by heterotrophs suggests a dynamic local carbon cycle. Moreover, as temperatures increase there is the potential for positive feedback between glacial melt and microbial transformations of organic carbon.

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Figure 1: Microbial uptake of in situ released organic matter.
Figure 2: Organic carbon cycling in supraglacial environments.


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This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Antarctic Sciences through ANT-0838970 and ANT-1141978 to C.M.F., by the NSF Division of Graduate Education through DGE-0654336, and through a NASA Earth and Science Space Fellowship to H.J.S. The Max Plank Society (MPG) supported the nanoSIMS and EA-IRMS analyses. D. Tienken, G. Klockgether, L. Polerecky and G. Lavik from MPI Bremen are acknowledged for assistance in the nanoSIMS and EA-IRMS analyses. R.A.F. is currently funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and 13C-DOC measurements were supported by an NSF grant to R.A.F. (BIO-OCE0929015) as well as by the MPG. We thank A. Parker from the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University for statistical guidance. FlowCAM image analysis was conducted by J. P. Darling at INSTAAR, The University of Colorado. Flow cytometry was performed by D. Dunigan and A. Esmael, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any opinions, findings, or conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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H.J.S., C.M.F. and R.A.F. conceived and designed experiments. H.J.S., C.M.F., S.L. and J.T.L. performed the experiments. H.J.S., C.M.F., R.A.F., S.L., D.M.M. and J.T.L. analysed the data. C.M.F., J.T.L. and M.M.M.K. contributed materials/analysis tools. H.J.S., C.M.F., R.A.F. and D.M.M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to C. M. Foreman.

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Smith, H., Foster, R., McKnight, D. et al. Microbial formation of labile organic carbon in Antarctic glacial environments. Nature Geosci 10, 356–359 (2017).

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