Collaborative Research: Importance of Heterotrophic and Phototrophic N2 Fixation in the McMurdo Dry Valleys on Local, Regional and Landscape Scales
The McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica are recognized as being the driest, coldest and probably one of the harshest environments on Earth. In addition to the lack of water, the biota in the valleys face a very limited supply of nutrients such as nitrogen compounds - necessary for protein synthesis. The glacial streams of the Dry Valleys have extensive cyanobacterial (blue green algae) mats that are a major source of carbon and nitrogen compounds to biota in this region. While cyanobacteria in streams are important as a source of these compounds, other non-photosynthetic bacteria also contribute a significant fraction (~50%) of fixed nitrogen compounds to valley biota. This research effort will involve an examination of exactly which non-phototrophic bacteria are involved in nitrogen fixation and what environmental factors are responsible for controlling nitrogen fixation by these microbes. This work will resolve the environmental factors that control the activity, abundance and diversity of nitrogen-fixing microbes across four of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This will allow for comparisons among sites of differing latitude, temperature, elevation and exposure to water. These results will be integrated into a landscape wetness model that will help determine the impact of both cyanobacterial and non-photosynthetic nitrogen fixing microorganisms in this very harsh environment.
The Dry Valleys in many ways resemble the Martian environment, and understanding the primitive life and very simple nutrient cycling in the Dry Valleys has relevance for understanding how life might have once existed on other planets. Furthermore, the study of microbes from extreme environments has resulted in numerous biotechnological applications such as the polymerase chain reaction for amplifying DNA and mechanisms for freeze resistance in agricultural crops. Thus, this research should yield insights into how biota survive in extreme environments, and these insights could lead to other commercial applications.
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