Subglacial microbial habitats are widespread in glaciated regions of our planet. Some of these environments have been isolated from the atmosphere and from sunlight for many thousands of years. Consequently, ecosystem processes must rely on energy gained from the oxidation of inorganic substrates or detrital organic matter. Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) is one of more than 400 subglacial lakes known to exist under the Antarctic ice sheet; however, little is known about microbial physiology and energetics in these systems. When it was sampled through its 800 m thick ice cover in 2013, the SLW water column was shallow (~2 m deep), oxygenated, and possessed sufficient concentrations of C, N, and P substrates to support microbial growth. Here, we use a combination of physiological assays and models to assess the energetics of microbial life in SLW. In general, SLW microorganisms grew slowly in this energy-limited environment. Heterotrophic cellular carbon turnover times, calculated from 3H-thymidine and 3H-leucine incorporation rates, were long (60 to 500 days) while cellular doubling times averaged 196 days. Inferred growth rates (average ~0.006 d−1) obtained from the same incubations were at least an order of magnitude lower than those measured in Antarctic surface lakes and oligotrophic areas of the ocean. Low growth efficiency (8%) indicated that heterotrophic populations in SLW partition a majority of their carbon demand to cellular maintenance rather than growth. Chemoautotrophic CO2-fixation exceeded heterotrophic organic C-demand by a factor of ~1.5. Aerobic respiratory activity associated with heterotrophic and chemoautotrophic metabolism surpassed the estimated supply of oxygen to SLW, implying that microbial activity could deplete the oxygenated waters, resulting in anoxia. We used thermodynamic calculations to examine the biogeochemical and energetic consequences of environmentally imposed switching between aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms in the SLW water column. Heterotrophic metabolisms utilizing acetate and formate as electron donors yielded less energy than chemolithotrophic metabolisms when calculated in terms of energy density, which supports experimental results that showed chemoautotrophic activity in excess of heterotrophic activity. The microbial communities of subglacial lake ecosystems provide important natural laboratories to study the physiological and biogeochemical behavior of microorganisms inhabiting cold, dark environments.
Liquid water occurs below glaciers and ice sheets globally, enabling the existence of an array of aquatic microbial ecosystems. In Antarctica, large subglacial lakes are present beneath hundreds to thousands of metres of ice, and scientific interest in exploring these environments has escalated over the past decade. After years of planning, the first team of scientists and engineers cleanly accessed and retrieved pristine samples from a West Antarctic subglacial lake ecosystem in January 2013. This paper reviews the findings to date on Subglacial Lake Whillans and presents new supporting data on the carbon and energy metabolism of resident microbes. The analysis of water and sediments from the lake revealed a diverse microbial community composed of bacteria and archaea that are close relatives of species known to use reduced N, S or Fe and CH4 as energy sources. The water chemistry of Subglacial Lake Whillans was dominated by weathering products from silicate minerals with a minor influence from seawater. Contributions to water chemistry from microbial sulfide oxidation and carbonation reactions were supported by genomic data. Collectively, these results provide unequivocal evidence that subglacial environments in this region of West Antarctica host active microbial ecosystems that participate in subglacial biogeochemical cycling.
A clean hot-water drill was used to gain access to Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) in late January 2013 as part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Over 3 days, we deployed an array of scientific tools through the SLW borehole: a downhole camera, a conductivity–temperature–depth (CTD) probe, a Niskin water sampler, an in situ filtration unit, three different sediment corers, a geothermal probe and a geophysical sensor string. Our observations confirm the existence of a subglacial water reservoir whose presence was previously inferred from satellite altimetry and surface geophysics. Subglacial water is about two orders of magnitude less saline than sea water (0.37–0.41 psu vs 35 psu) and two orders of magnitude more saline than pure drill meltwater (<0.002 psu). It reaches a minimum temperature of –0.55°C, consistent with depression of the freezing point by 7.019 MPa of water pressure. Subglacial water was turbid and remained turbid following filtration through 0.45 μm filters. The recovered sediment cores, which sampled down to 0.8 m below the lake bottom, contained a macroscopically structureless diamicton with shear strength between 2 and 6 kPa. Our main operational recommendation for future subglacial access through water-filled boreholes is to supply enough heat to the top of the borehole to keep it from freezing.