Ice and Life


My childhood dream had always been to set foot on the frozen continent. While others were longing for beaches and warm sun, I had frozen wilderness in my mind. But as a kid, I wasn't so advanced as to dream of a scientific career--I was just thrilled by all the adventures of the polar pioneers. Instead my scientific interest in the poles developed out of my wish to investigate anything about water--frozen or liquid. The allure of water led me to the fields of microbiology and limnology (the study of bodies of fresh water, such as lakes).

Immediately after finishing my degree in microbial limnology, I applied for the position of a half-time research assistant at the division of limnology at the University of Innsbruck and got the job! This presented me with the opportunity to continue with a PhD that was focused on microbiology in high mountain lakes. It is obvious for an alpine town such as Innsbruck to do alpine research, and the Institute of Zoology and Limnology runs a highly equipped research station in the Tyrolean Alps, situated at 2400 meters above sea level. The Gossenköllesee Lake and its catchment area comprise the world's smallest UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, as well as a centre for projects of the European Community concerning research on high mountain lakes. This recently renovated facility provides unique opportunities for long-term monitoring in alpine research.

During my PhD a new research field was developed in our department, inspired by colleagues from the University of Barcelona. Their interest was in the microbiology of the seasonal winter ice covering high mountain lakes. Ice covers play a major role in determining the environmental properties of lakes. They reduce the transfer of energy and matter in and out of a lake by orders of magnitude. In addition to controlling water column processes, ice covers in montane systems and polar regions contain active microbial communities in habitats with distinct geophysical features and dynamics. Lake ice microbial communities, called LIMCOs as a counterpart to the already well described sea ice microbial communities (SIMCOs), are highly active and live within alternating layers of slush and white ice.

Understanding the different modes of formation, and the contrasting geophysical dynamics, of these habitats is important for understanding the ecology of the different microbial communities. The study of LIMCOs may foster the understanding of microbial communities in the extreme environments posed by ice, their functional roles within their respective ecosystems, and their sensitivity to climate variations.

In 1996, right at the end of my PhD, I was invited by John C. Priscu of Montana State University in Bozeman MSU to participate in his project studying ice microbial communities in antarctic lakes. Priscu had already conducted several projects in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This region is an exceptional area on the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent on Earth. It is a climatic oasis. Because there has not been any precipitation for about a million years, it has a Mars-like landscape. These valleys are characterized by harsh katabatic winds, glaciers, sandy surroundings, and permanent ice-covered lakes, which harbour the most exceptional life-in-ice-forms I have ever seen. Aeolian deposition is responsible for sorting and transporting lithogenic matter (primarily sand- and clay-sized particles), containing microbial cells from the surrounding desert environments (soils, ephemeral streams, glaciers, etc.) onto the ice covers that range in thickness from 3 to 20 meters. By absorption of solar heat, these particles, and the microbes they contain, melt into the ice. The surprising thing is that these cells are still capable of metabolism as long as they have a microfilm of liquid water around their surface.

In the year 2000, I once more got the opportunity to join Priscu's team in Antarctica as part of the Long Term Ecological Research LTER project. In this study we have monitored the liquid water column of these permanent ice-covered lakes. In addition, I had the freedom to conduct my own research in the Dry Valleys, taking ice samples from the surrounding glaciers to investigate microbial biodiversity in glacier ice.

By then I was totally caught by the polar bug, meaning that I could no longer resist anything related to Antarctica. After publishing comparative studies about microbial ice communities in alpine and antarctic ice together with MSU and the University of Barcelona, I was elected to represent Austria in the European Polar Board. On a national level, an Austrian Polar Society has been founded to support polar and alpine studies, and I am part of the committee. In the meantime, research into cold-loving bacteria in extreme ecosystems such as icy habitats led to the development of my working group, called "Microbiology in Snow and Ice".

The next big step occurred just this winter when I was invited to be part of the Antarctica Meteorite Expedition 2002, which led us from the Patriot Hills to the South Pole Station and the Pecora Escarpment. This trip was initiated by the Planetary Studies Foundation PSF in Algonquin, Illinois, a nonprofit private scientific organisation which promotes the study of planetary formation by collection and analysis of meteorites, among other earth sciences. The two main objectives--meteorite studies and microbiology in permanent ice fields--were successfully accomplished. Paul Sipiera, president of PSF and expedition leader, covered the meteorite research, whereas my task was to collect ice cores for investigations of microbial biodiversity in permanent ice fields. The Institute of Zoology and Limnology now has a co-operative agreement with PSF, which offers me a position as a European representative of PSF for Polar Studies for the next 5 years. A future expedition for the year 2003 is already planned in relation to this. This scientific trip will lead us to the Canadian High Arctic and North Pole, to study (lake) ice microbial communities in high arctic lakes and ice fields. This will represent a novel comparative study between formation of very diverse icy ecosystems in arctic, antarctic, and alpine regions in connection with responses and diversity of extremophile microorganisms.

The opportunities to do this kind of research within the borders of Austria are quite small as our country has only a very small polar program. Besides, Austria cannot contribute the required logistics to run a polar research station, meaning that we depend on invitations from nations already established in Antarctica. Like all young scientists, we suffer from the problem of nonpermanent positions. It is quite impossible to do long-term planning because we never know what will happen after the next period of employment. The only way to escape this dilemma is to build up fruitful connections with foreign nations who possess greater potential to run polar programs.

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