Microbial migration and adaptation through glacial loss

As glaciers melt, the microorganisms that they support get transported to downstream locations which feature vastly different environmental conditions. This project will focus on the ecological impact of glacial melt on glacial microbial communities as they travel from supraglacial environments to subglacial and periglacial environments, on their journey towards the coast.

Surface ice environments in the Polar regions fluctuate between 24 hours of light, and 24 hours of darkness. Wide ranging Arctic air temperatures influence glacial melt and therefore water availability. In the subglacial environment, perpetual darkness and high pressures feature, owing to the meters of ice that lie above. Once in the periglacial environments that lie adjacent to glaciers, the light returns, additional nutrient sources become available, and Arctic air temperatures have recently reached the high-teens to low-twenties (C) during summertime.

This project will investigate three main themes:

1) Mechanisms that facilitate the release and capture of microbiota within glacial and periglacial environments.
2) The ability of transported communities to survive under the light, temperature, pressure, atmosphere and nutrient conditions presented in downstream locations.
3) Community establishment within downstream environments.

Through this project, the student will gain skills in microbial ecology, including fluorescent microscopy, molecular biology and ecological modelling. State-of-the-art low temperature/high pressure experimentation will furthermore be performed, alongside analytical geochemistry techniques and geochemical modelling.

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Image Captions

Scientists working within the periglacial environment adjacent to the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo credit: Rune Ellerup Kraghede


Fieldwork in Svalbard or Greenland is expected for sample collection and in vivo analyses. Cell transportation on the ice surface will be investigated using particle image velocimetry. Cell capture within periglacial environments will be investigated by examining the flow and content of hyporheic waters, and the content of deposited sediments. In vitro microcosms will be set up to test the impact of changes in environmental conditions on the form and function of microbial communities from a range of glacial habitats. Active microbial communities will be investigated using Ramen cell sorting with an isotope probe tracer. Ecological models will be developed to build theories of community establishment, which may be developed to test the impact of increased melt. In addition to supervisors Dr Cameron (University of Glasgow) and Dr Telling (Newcastle University), the student will collaborate with Professor Andrew Mitchell and Dr Arwyn Edwards (Aberystwyth University), who together have extensive geochemical, high pressure, molecular microbiology and glacial research expertise.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review; training in microbiological and geochemical techniques; development of experimental strategy; fieldwork; research into ecological and eco-hydrological modelling.

Year 2

Establish and analyse microcosms for investigations into cell viability and nutrient cycling; perform molecular biology, geochemical and hydrological analyses on samples collected in the field; data interpretation.

Year 3

Ecological modelling development. Completion of experiments; data analysis; conference presentation; thesis and manuscript writing

Year 3.5

Completion of thesis and submission of manuscripts

& Skills

This project provides an excellent platform to gain multidisciplinary training in an important and timely research field. It will cut across disciplines of biogeochemistry, microbiology and molecular ecology, with the options of delving into ecological hydrology and ecological modelling. The candidate will work closely with both supervisors to gain directly from their expertise. Dr Cameron will oversee the direction, development and progress of the candidate and the project, and will provide expertise in experiment design, execution and dissemination, microbial and chemical field sampling, molecular microbial ecology, ecological statistical analyses and career development. Dr Telling will provide complementary expertise in geobiology and biogeochemistry. Project collaborators Professor Andrew Mitchell and Dr Arwyn Edwards (Aberystwyth University) will furthermore provide geochemical, high pressure, molecular microbiology and glacial research expertise.
The candidate will have access to extensive IAPETUS2-cohort and NERC training workshops, as well as a tailor-made University of Glasgow PhD studentship training plan, allowing for a wealth of broader, transferable research skills and knowledge to be gained.

The candidate will join vibrant research communities at the University of Glasgow, Newcastle University and Aberystwyth University, where they will be welcomed and encouraged to network with colleagues and their collaborators. The candidate will have the opportunity to present their results to at least one research conference. Furthermore, they will be encouraged to disseminate their result to the general public at school and community events. Together, these interactions will provide the candidate with opportunities to learn and practice skills in dissemination, networking and different styles of research communication.

References & further reading

1. Cameron KA, Müller O, Stibal M, Edwards A, Jacobsen CS: Glacial microbiota are hydrologically connected and temporally variable. Environmental Microbiology 2020, 22(8):3172-3187.
2. Cameron KA, Stibal M, Hawkings JR, Mikkelsen AB, Telling J, Kohler TJ, Gözdereliler E, Zarsky JD, Wadham JL, Jacobsen CS: Meltwater export of prokaryotic cells from the Greenland ice sheet. Environmental Microbiology 2017, 19:524–534.
3. Stibal M, Bradley JA, Edwards A, Hotaling S, Zawierucha K, Rosvold J, Lutz S, Cameron KA, Mikucki JA, Kohler TJ et al: Glacial ecosystems are essential to understanding biodiversity responses to glacier retreat. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2020.
4. Stibal M, Sabacká M, Zárský J: Biological processes on glacier and ice sheet surfaces. Nature Geoscience 2012, 5:771-774.
5. Sloan WT, Woodcock S, Lunn M, Head IM, Curtis TP: Modeling Taxa-Abundance Distributions in Microbial Communities using Environmental Sequence Data. Microbial ecology 2007, 53(3):443-455.
6. Telling J, Boyd ES, Bone N, Jones EL, Tranter M, MacFarlane JW, Martin PG, Wadham JL, Lamarche-Gagnon G, Skidmore ML et al: Rock comminution as a source of hydrogen for subglacial ecosystems. Nature Geosci 2015, 8(11):851-855.

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