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Microbial Mats of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica: Oases of Biological Activity in a Very Cold Desert

  • Sohm, Jill A.1, 2
  • Niederberger, Thomas D.3
  • Parker, Alexander E.4, 5
  • Tirindelli, Joëlle4
  • Gunderson, Troy1
  • Cary, Stephen Craig3, 6
  • Capone, Douglas G.1
  • Carpenter, Edward J.4
  • 1 Department of Biological Sciences, Marine and Environmental Biology Section, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA , (United States)
  • 2 Environmental Studies Program, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA , (United States)
  • 3 College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, University of Delaware, Lewes, DE , (United States)
  • 4 Estuary and Ocean Science Center, San Francisco State University, Tiburon, CA , (United States)
  • 5 Department of Sciences and Mathematics, California State University Maritime Academy, Vallejo, CA , (United States)
  • 6 International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, University of Waikato, Hamilton , (New Zealand)
Published Article
Frontiers in Microbiology
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
Oct 27, 2020
DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.537960
  • Microbiology
  • Original Research


Cyanobacterial mats in the Antarctic Dry Valleys are photosynthetic microbial ecosystems living at the extreme of conditions on Earth with respect to temperature, light, water and nutrient availability. They are metabolically active for about 8 weeks during the austral summer when temperatures briefly rise above freezing and glacial and lake melt waters are available. There is much to learn about the biogeochemical impact of mats in these environments and the microbial communities associated with them. Our data demonstrate that these mats attain surprisingly high rates of carbon (CO2) and dinitrogen (N2) fixation when liquid water is available, in some cases comparable to rates in warmer temperate or tropical environments. C and N2 fixation in Dry Valley mats in turn substantially elevate dissolved organic C and inorganic N pools and thereby promote enhanced microbial secondary production. Moreover, the microbial community fingerprint of these mats is unique compared with the more ubiquitous dry soils that do not contain mats. Components of the heterotrophic microbiota may also contribute substantially to N inputs through N2 fixation.

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