Glaciers and Ice Sheets As Analog Environments of Potentially Habitable Icy Worlds.
ABSTRACT: Icy worlds in the solar system and beyond have attracted a remarkable attention as possible habitats for life. The current consideration about whether life exists beyond Earth is based on our knowledge of life in terrestrial cold environments. On Earth, glaciers and ice sheets have been considered uninhabited for a long time as they seemed too hostile to harbor life. However, these environments are unique biomes dominated by microbial communities which maintain active biochemical routes. Thanks to techniques such as microscopy and more recently DNA sequencing methods, a great biodiversity of prokaryote and eukaryote microorganisms have been discovered. These microorganisms are adapted to a harsh environment, in which the most extreme features are the lack of liquid water, extremely cold temperatures, high solar radiation and nutrient shortage. Here we compare the environmental characteristics of icy worlds, and the environmental characteristics of terrestrial glaciers and ice sheets in order to address some interesting questions: (i) which are the characteristics of habitability known for the frozen worlds, and which could be compatible with life, (ii) what are the environmental characteristics of terrestrial glaciers and ice sheets that can be life-limiting, (iii) What are the microbial communities of prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms that can live in them, and (iv) taking into account these observations, could any of these planets or satellites meet the conditions of habitability? In this review, the icy worlds are considered from the point of view of astrobiological exploration. With the aim of determining whether icy worlds could be potentially habitable, they have been compared with the environmental features of glaciers and ice sheets on Earth. We also reviewed some field and laboratory investigations about microorganisms that live in analog environments of icy worlds, where they are not only viable but also metabolically active.
Project description:Two widely-cited alternative hypotheses propose geological localities and biochemical mechanisms for life's origins. The first states that chemical energy available in submarine hydrothermal vents supported the formation of organic compounds and initiated primitive metabolic pathways which became incorporated in the earliest cells; the second proposes that protocells self-assembled from exogenous and geothermally-delivered monomers in freshwater hot springs. These alternative hypotheses are relevant to the fossil record of early life on Earth, and can be factored into the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System. This review summarizes the evidence supporting and challenging these hypotheses, and considers their implications for the search for life on various habitable worlds. It will discuss the relative probability that life could have emerged in environments on early Mars, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and also the degree to which prebiotic chemistry could have advanced on Titan. These environments will be compared to ancient and modern terrestrial analogs to assess their habitability and biopreservation potential. Origins of life approaches can guide the biosignature detection strategies of the next generation of planetary science missions, which could in turn advance one or both of the leading alternative abiogenesis hypotheses.
Project description:There is an increasing interest in the icy moons of the Solar System due to their potential habitability and as targets for future exploratory missions, which include astrobiological goals. Several studies have reported new results describing the details of these moons' geological settings; however, there is still a lack of information regarding the deep subsurface environment of the moons. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the microbial habitability of Europa constrained by terrestrial analogue environments and sustained by radioactive energy provided by natural unstable isotopes. The geological scenarios are based on known deep environments on Earth, and the bacterial ecosystem is based on a sulfate-reducing bacterial ecosystem found 2.8?km below the surface in a basin in South Africa. The results show the possibility of maintaining the modeled ecosystem based on the proposed scenarios and provides directions for future models and exploration missions for a more complete evaluation of the habitability of Europa and of icy moons in general.
Project description:The requirements for life on Earth, its elemental composition, and its environmental limits provide a way to assess the habitability of exoplanets. Temperature is key both because of its influence on liquid water and because it can be directly estimated from orbital and climate models of exoplanetary systems. Life can grow and reproduce at temperatures as low as -15 °C, and as high as 122 °C. Studies of life in extreme deserts show that on a dry world, even a small amount of rain, fog, snow, and even atmospheric humidity can be adequate for photosynthetic production producing a small but detectable microbial community. Life is able to use light at levels less than 10(-5) of the solar flux at Earth. UV or ionizing radiation can be tolerated by many microorganisms at very high levels and is unlikely to be life limiting on an exoplanet. Biologically available nitrogen may limit habitability. Levels of O2 over a few percent on an exoplanet would be consistent with the presence of multicellular organisms and high levels of O2 on Earth-like worlds indicate oxygenic photosynthesis. Other factors such as pH and salinity are likely to vary and not limit life over an entire planet or moon.
Project description:Colwellia psychrerythraea is a marine psychrophilic bacterium known for its remarkable ability to maintain activity during long-term exposure to extreme subzero temperatures and correspondingly high salinities in sea ice. These microorganisms must have simultaneous adaptations to high salinity and low temperature to survive, be metabolically active, or grow in the ice. Here we report results obtained through an experimental design that allowed us to monitor culturability, activity, and proteomic signatures of Colwellia psychrerythraea strain 34H (Cp34H) to subzero temperature, salinity, and nutrient availability by performing long-term incubations in eight different conditions. Shotgun proteomics revealed novel metabolic strategies used to maintain culturability in response to each independent experimental variable, particularly in pathways regulating carbon, nitrogen, and fatty acid metabolism. For the first time, statistical analysis of differential abundances of proteins uniquely identified in these isolated conditions provide metabolism-specific protein biosignatures indicative of growth or survival in either increased salinity, decreased temperature, or nutrient limitation. Additionally, to aid in the search for extant life on other icy worlds, analysis of detected short peptides enriched and retained in -10oC incubations for four months identified over 400 potential biosignatures that could indicate the presence of terrestrial-like cold-active or halophilic metabolisms on other icy worlds.
Project description:Earth has experienced glacial/interglacial oscillations accompanied by changes in atmospheric CO2 throughout much of its history. Today over 15 million square kilometers of Earth's land surface is covered in ice including glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets. Glaciers are teeming with life and supraglacial snow and ice surfaces are often darkened by the presence of photoautotrophic snow algae, resulting in accelerated melt due to lowered albedo. Few studies report the productivity of snow algal communities and the parameters which constrain their growth on supraglacial surfaces-key factors for quantifying biologically induced albedo effects (bio-albedo). We demonstrate that snow algae primary productivity is stimulated by the addition of inorganic carbon. Our results indicate a positive feedback between increasing CO2 and snow algal primary productivity, underscoring the need for robust climate models of past and present glacial/interglacial oscillations to include feedbacks between supraglacial primary productivity, albedo, and atmospheric CO2.
Project description:Little is known about the viability of eukaryotic microorganisms preserved in icy regions. Here we report on the diversity of microbial eukaryotes in ice samples derived from four Pyrenean glaciers. The species composition of eukaryotic communities in these glaciers is unknown mostly because of the presence of a multi-year ice cap, and it is not clear whether they harbor the same populations. The recent deglaciation of these areas is allowing an easy access to glacial layers that correspond to the "Little Ice Age" although some isolated deposits are attributed to previous glacial cycles. In this study, we use molecular 18S rRNA-based approaches to characterize some of the microbial eukaryotic populations associated with Pyrenean glaciers. Firstly, we performed a chemical and microscopical characterization of ice samples. Secondly, molecular analyses revealed interesting protist genetic diversity in glaciers. In order to understand the microbial composition of the ice samples the eukaryotic communities resident in the glacial samples were examined by amplifying community DNA and constructing clone libraries with 18S rRNA primers. After removal of potential chimeric sequences and dereplication of identical sequences, phylogenetic analysis demonstrated that several different protists could be identified. Protist diversity was more phylum rich in Aneto and Monte Perdido glaciers. The dominant taxonomic groups across all samples (>1% of all sequences) were Viridiplantae and Rhizaria. Significant variations in relative abundances of protist phyla between higher and lower glaciers were observed. At the genus level, significant differences were also recorded for the dominant genera Chloromonas, Raphidonema, Heteromita, Koliella, and Bodomorpha. In addition, protist community structure showed significant differences between glaciers. The relative abundances of protist groups at different taxonomic levels correlated with the altitude and area of glaciers and with pH of ice, but little or no relationships to other chemical characteristics were found.
Project description:The permanent ice cover of Lake Vida (Antarctica) encapsulates an extreme cryogenic brine ecosystem (-13 °C; salinity, 200). This aphotic ecosystem is anoxic and consists of a slightly acidic (pH 6.2) sodium chloride-dominated brine. Expeditions in 2005 and 2010 were conducted to investigate the biogeochemistry of Lake Vida's brine system. A phylogenetically diverse and metabolically active Bacteria dominated microbial assemblage was observed in the brine. These bacteria live under very high levels of reduced metals, ammonia, molecular hydrogen (H(2)), and dissolved organic carbon, as well as high concentrations of oxidized species of nitrogen (i.e., supersaturated nitrous oxide and ?1 mmol?L(-1) nitrate) and sulfur (as sulfate). The existence of this system, with active biota, and a suite of reduced as well as oxidized compounds, is unusual given the millennial scale of its isolation from external sources of energy. The geochemistry of the brine suggests that abiotic brine-rock reactions may occur in this system and that the rich sources of dissolved electron acceptors prevent sulfate reduction and methanogenesis from being energetically favorable. The discovery of this ecosystem and the in situ biotic and abiotic processes occurring at low temperature provides a tractable system to study habitability of isolated terrestrial cryoenvironments (e.g., permafrost cryopegs and subglacial ecosystems), and is a potential analog for habitats on other icy worlds where water-rock reactions may cooccur with saline deposits and subsurface oceans.
Project description:Biological sulfur cycling in polar, low-temperature ecosystems is an understudied phenomenon in part due to difficulty of access and the dynamic nature of glacial environments. One such environment where sulfur cycling is known to play an important role in microbial metabolisms is located at Borup Fiord Pass (BFP) in the Canadian High Arctic. Here, transient springs emerge from ice near the terminus of a glacier, creating a large area of proglacial aufeis (spring-derived ice) that is often covered in bright yellow/white sulfur, sulfate, and carbonate mineral precipitates accompanied by a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide. Metagenomic sequencing of samples from multiple sites and of various sample types across the BFP glacial system produced 31 metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) that were queried for sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon cycling/metabolism genes. An abundance of sulfur cycling genes was widespread across the isolated MAGs and sample metagenomes taxonomically associated with the bacterial classes Alphaproteobacteria and Gammaproteobacteria and Campylobacteria (formerly the Epsilonproteobacteria). This corroborates previous research from BFP implicating Campylobacteria as the primary class responsible for sulfur oxidation; however, data reported here suggested putative sulfur oxidation by organisms in both the alphaproteobacterial and gammaproteobacterial classes that was not predicted by previous work. These findings indicate that in low-temperature, sulfur-based environments, functional redundancy may be a key mechanism that microorganisms use to enable coexistence whenever energy is limited and/or focused by redox chemistry.IMPORTANCE A unique environment at Borup Fiord Pass is characterized by a sulfur-enriched glacial ecosystem in the low-temperature Canadian High Arctic. BFP represents one of the best terrestrial analog sites for studying icy, sulfur-rich worlds outside our own, such as Europa and Mars. The site also allows investigation of sulfur-based microbial metabolisms in cold environments here on Earth. Here, we report whole-genome sequencing data that suggest that sulfur cycling metabolisms at BFP are more widely used across bacterial taxa than predicted. From our analyses, the metabolic capability of sulfur oxidation among multiple community members appears likely due to functional redundancy present in their genomes. Functional redundancy, with respect to sulfur-oxidation at the BFP sulfur-ice environment, may indicate that this dynamic ecosystem hosts microorganisms that are able to use multiple sulfur electron donors alongside other metabolic pathways, including those for carbon and nitrogen.
Project description:We used a deep-ultraviolet fluorescence mapping spectrometer, coupled to a drill system, to scan from the surface to 105?m depth into the Greenland ice sheet. The scan included firn and glacial ice and demonstrated that the instrument is able to determine small (mm) and large (cm) scale regions of organic matter concentration and discriminate spectral types of organic matter at high resolution. Both a linear point cloud scanning mode and a raster mapping mode were used to detect and localize microbial and organic matter "hotspots" embedded in the ice. Our instrument revealed diverse spectral signatures. Most hotspots were <20?mm in diameter, clearly isolated from other hotspots, and distributed stochastically; there was no evidence of layering in the ice at the fine scales examined (100??m per pixel). The spectral signatures were consistent with organic matter fluorescence from microbes, lignins, fused-ring aromatic molecules, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and biologically derived materials such as fulvic acids. In situ detection of organic matter hotspots in ice prevents loss of spatial information and signal dilution when compared with traditional bulk analysis of ice core meltwaters. Our methodology could be useful for detecting microbial and organic hotspots in terrestrial icy environments and on future missions to the Ocean Worlds of our Solar System.
Project description:The icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn are perhaps the most promising places in the Solar System regarding habitability. However, the potential habitable environments are hidden underneath km-thick ice shells. The discovery of Enceladus' plume by the Cassini mission has provided vital clues in our understanding of the processes occurring within the interior of exooceans. To interpret these data and to help configure instruments for future missions, controlled laboratory experiments and simulations are needed. This review aims to bring together studies and experimental designs from various scientific fields currently investigating the icy moons, including planetary sciences, chemistry, (micro-)biology, geology, glaciology, etc. This chapter provides an overview of successful in situ, in silico, and in vitro experiments, which explore different regions of interest on icy moons, i.e. a potential plume, surface, icy shell, water and brines, hydrothermal vents, and the rocky core.