Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Bacterial Community Structure, Function and Diversity in Antarctic Sea Ice

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posted on 2021-11-11, 22:14 authored by Cowie, Rebecca Olivia MacLennan

Antarctic sea ice is an important feature of the southern ocean where at its maximum it can cover 8 % of the Southern Hemisphere. It provides a stable environment for the colonisation of diverse and highly specialised microbes which play a central role in the assimilation and regulation of energy through the Antarctic food web. Polar environments are sensitive to changes in the environment. Small changes in temperature can have large effects on sea ice thickness and extent and Antarctic sea ice cover is expected to shrink by 25 % over the next century. It is unknown how the sea ice microbiota will respond. In order to understand the effects of climate change on the sea ice ecosystem it is necessary to obtain information about the community structure, function and diversity and their reactions with the environment. Studies have focused on algal diversity and physiology in Antarctic sea ice and in comparison studies on the prokaryotic community are few. Although prokaryotic diversity has been investigated using clone libraries and culture based methods, it is likely that certain species have still not been described. Almost nothing is known about the Antarctic sea ice bacterial community spatial and temporal dynamics under changing abiotic and biotic conditions or their role in biogeochemical cycles. This is the first study linking Antarctic bacterial communities to function by using statistics to investigate the relationships between environmental variables and community structure. Bacterial community structure was investigated by extracting both the DNA and RNA from the environment to understand both the metabolically active (RNA) and total (DNA) bacterial community. The thickness of the sea ice and nutrient concentrations were key factors regulating bacterial community composition in Antarctic sea ice. Sea ice thickness is likely to have an effect on the physiological responses of algae leading to changes in photosynthate concentrations and composition of dissolved organic matter (DOM). Further investigations into the relationships between enzymatic activity and community structure revealed that the composition of the DOM drove variation between bacterial communities. There was no relationship between bacterial abundance and chlorophyll-a (as a measure of algal biomass), suggesting a un-coupling of the microbial loop. However bacteria were actively involved in the hydrolysis of polymers throughout the sea ice core. Investigations using quantitative PCR (qPCR) found that the functional genes involved in denitrification and light energy utilisation were in low abundance therefore these processes are minor in Antarctic sea ice. These results confirm that sea ice bacteria are predominantly heterotrophs and have a major role in the cycling of carbon and nitrogen through the microbial loop ...


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Ecology and Biodiversity

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Ryan, Ken