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Presentation of the project 

AMBIO will determine the microbial diversity, community composition and taxonomic turnover in permanently and seasonally wet habitats (lakes, cryoconites and seepages) across Antarctica, and assess the relative importance of ecological versus historical factors in explaining the geographical distribution of particular taxa and communities. To this end, we will study regions at a circum-Antarctic level and along a latitudinal gradient ranging from high-latitude continental sites in East and West Antarctica (including the site of the future Belgian Base near the Utsteinen nunatak), to the Sub-Antarctic islands.


The first two years will be devoted to a systematic inventory of the diversity and community composition as well as to the establishment of culture collections of focal groups. Focus will be on Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Cyanobacteria, Chlorophyta and Bacillariophyta, all known to be well-represented in Antarctic microbial communities. A mid-term assessment will identify regions and taxa particularly important to test hypotheses about the driving factors behind Antarctic microbial diversity and its evolution. These will be the focus of the two following years of the project. Importantly, the results will help identifying Antarctic Special Protected Areas (ASPA).


This proposal results from the successful partnership developed within the framework of the EU-project MICROMAT and the Belgian Science Policy projects LAQUAN and HOLANT, which so far resulted in more than 20 joint publications. During these projects, the Belgian teams have developed novel expertise in the study of actual and past microbial communities in lake sediments with molecular tools and inference models for water balance and productivity changes (e.g. Verleyen et al. 2003; 2004c; Taton et al. 2003; 2005; Schmoker et al. in prep., Verleyen et al. subm.). In addition, we have recently established collaborative links with Japanese researchers (Prof. Dr. T. Naganuma and Dr. S. Imura) in order to extend the recently developed datasets within the JARE REGAL project on the succession and evolution of lacustrine biota in the lakes in Syowa Oasis. The project is further firmly integrated within international initiatives including the IPY proposal n55 MERGE (Microbiological and Ecological Responses to Global Environmental Changes in Polar Regions) where it will contribute to the Theme 1 Diversity and biogeography

The experience acquired during preceding projects will be used to improve the methodologies for the isolation of strains and characterisation of the phenotypic and genotypic diversity of samples and strains. There will be interactions with MERGE concerning the harmonised protocols to be used by all partners during IPY.  The project will further contribute documented new microbial isolates to the BCCM culture collections of bacteria, polar cyanobacteria and green algae and diatoms and will itself benefit from expertise gained in the culture collection projects.


The specific aims of the current proposal are:

  1. to expand the existing database of rRNA operon sequences of bacteria, cyanobacteria and microalgae with new samples from Maritime and Continental Antarctica, as well as from Sub-Antarctica based upon isolates, clone libraries and DGGE of environmental DNA,
  2. to enlarge the existing collections of Antarctic bacteria (particularly Proteobacteria and Bacteroidetes), Cyanobacteria and diatoms, with new documented isolates,
  3. to study the microbial diversity in wet terrestrial habitats in the three biogeographic regions of the continent: Sub-Antarctica, Maritime and East Antarctica,
  4. to study the community turnover within each taxonomic group between different habitats (e.g., lakes, cryoconites and seepages) and among comparable habitats along ecological and geographical gradients to analyse the congruence and disparity in patterns of diversity and taxonomic turnover observed for different taxa,
  5. to select in each of the groups (Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Cyanobacteria, green algae and diatoms), particular taxa (genus to infraspecific level, phylotype) that display striking distribution patterns (e.g. potentially endemic or cosmopolitan with or without apparent environmental specialisations), for further detailed study of these patterns. The presence of the selected taxa will be monitored with more specific and more sensitive genotypic methods in an enlarged set of samples so as to allow a more precise analysis and facilitate interpretation in relation to other ecological and historic factors,
  6. to identify regions of unique microbial diversity that deserve to be protected.