Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Glacier bacteria’s contribution to carbon cycling


Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.

A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a finding that has global implications as the bulk of Earth’s glaciers shrink in response to a warming climate.

Cotton Glacier stream in Antarctica

C. Foreman

The study was conducted by Heidi Smith and Christine Foreman of the Center for Biofilm Engineering in Montana State University’s College of Engineering, USA, Marcel Kuypers and Sten Littmann of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, and researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the U.S. Geological Survey, Stockholm University in Sweden.

The paper challenges the prevailing theory that microorganisms found in glacial meltwater primarily consume ancient organic carbon that was once deposited on glacial surfaces and incorporated into ice as glaciers formed.

“We felt that there was another side to the story,” said Smith. “What we showed for the first time is that a large proportion of the organic carbon is instead coming from photosynthetic bacteria” that are also found in the ice and that become active as the ice melts, Smith said. Like plants, those bacteria absorb carbon dioxide and in turn provide a source of organic matter.

The research team made the discovery after sampling meltwater from a large stream flowing over the surface of a glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica in 2012. Afterward, Smith spent two months at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, where she worked with colleagues to track how different carbon isotopes moved through the meltwater’s ecosystem, allowing the team to determine the carbon’s origin and activity.

The researchers ultimately found that the glacial microbes utilized the carbon produced by the photosynthetic bacteria at a greater rate than the older, more complex carbon molecules deposited in the ice, because the bacterial carbon is more “labile,” or easily broken down. The labile carbon “is kind of like a Snickers bar,” meaning that it’s a quick, energizing food source that’s most available to the microbes, Smith said.

Moreover, the researchers found that the photosynthetic bacteria produced roughly four times more carbon than was taken up by the microbes, resulting in an excess of organic carbon being flushed downstream. “The ecological impact of this biologically produced organic carbon on downstream ecosystems will be amplified due to its highly labile nature,” Foreman said.

Although individual glacial streams export relatively small amounts of organic carbon, the large mass of glaciers, which cover more than 10 percent of the Earth’s surface, means that total glacial runoff is an important source of the material. Marine organic carbon underpins wide-ranging ecological processes such as the production of phytoplankton, the foundation of the oceans’ foodweb.

As glaciers increasingly melt and release the organically produced, labile carbon, “we think that marine microbial communities will be most impacted,” Smith said. “We hope this generates more discussion.”

In a “News and Views” commentary accompanying the article in Nature Geoscience, Elizabeth Kujawinski, a tenured scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, called the team’s work “an elegant combination” of research methods.

Taken together with another study published in the same issue of Nature Geoscience, about microbial carbon cycling in Greenland, Smith’s paper “deflates the notion that glacier surfaces are poor hosts for microbial metabolism,” according to Kujawinski. The two studies “have established that microbial carbon cycling on glacier surfaces cannot be ignored,” she added.

Based on Montana State University’s press release:

Original publication
H. J. Smith, R. A. Foster, D. M. McKnight , J. T. Lisle , S. Littmann , M. M. M. Kuypers und C. M. Foreman: Microbial formation of labile organic carbon in Antarctic glacial environments. Nature Geoscience.

Begleitender News & Views
E. Kujawinski: The power of glacial microbes. Nature Geoscience.

Participating institutes
Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA
Stockholm University, Stockholm 10691, Sweden
Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen 28359, Germany
University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
US Geological Survey, St Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA

Please direct your queries to

Dr. Fanni Aspetsberger
Dr. Manfred Schlösser
Phone: +49 421 2028 947 or 704

Weitere Informationen: (related press release: Hotspots for biological activity and carbon cycling on glaciers)

Dr. Fanni Aspetsberger | Max-Planck-Institut für marine Mikrobiologie

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Earlier flowering of modern winter wheat cultivars

20.03.2018 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

Smithsonian researchers name new ocean zone: The rariphotic

20.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Molecular doorstop could be key to new tuberculosis drugs

20.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>