Case study

Finding signs of life deep inside glaciers

Our researchers have dug deep into the ice at the bottom of glaciers to find out what is living inside – or whether there is life there at all. What they found was a complex community of microbes.

‘It’s alive!’

Ice covers a huge amount of the Earth’s surface. The assumption has been that there is little going on in terms of living organisms in these frozen areas. We are sure this is not the case.

The research team from our Environmental Sustainability Research Centre visited glaciers in Iceland and Greenland and took samples from the ice. We identified the complex microbial communities living in the basal (bottom) ice of glaciers. Microbiology Lecturer Dr David Elliott explains: “Due to the depth sampled, we know that the ice was formed many thousands of years ago.”

Microbes from these samples have been cultivated in the laboratory by undergraduate Biology student Rebecca Parke and we have used DNA sequencing to identify them. Rebecca was supported by our Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme.

Dr Elliott says: “This is the start of an exciting new chapter in the work because we have now established a culture collection of microbes and I have current students making plans to characterise these microbes to find out what they can do.”

The Kvíárjökull glacier in Iceland
The Kvíárjökull glacier in Iceland

Advancing knowledge

Current models of the Earth’s systems do not account for microbial processes in these areas of ice, known collectively as the cryosphere. Our research has, therefore, advanced knowledge about the microbes of the cryosphere. This is especially the case in deeper ice, which is less easily accessible and has a larger mass compared to surface ice, which has received a greater amount of attention.

A lot of our initial work has focused on identifying the microbes we extract from the ice from their DNA. From this, we can imply function and the next stage of our research is to firm up these implications. This can be done by cultivating the microbes and doing experiments on them, in addition to more in-depth DNA sequencing work.

Finding the function of the microbes is important because, in our warming world, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. The microbes we discovered in the ice are thus being released and this has implications for the carbon cycle and soil formation among other things.

Dr David Elliott sampling soil in central Australia
Associate Professor in Microbiology

Dr David Elliott is a microbial ecologist specialising in the roles of microbes in low productivity soils including drylands and the cryosphere. He leads the BSc (hons) Biology programme and teaches a variety of topics in Human and Environmental Sciences.

To the stars

Our glaciers research team includes collaborators such as Dr Mario Toubes-Rodrigo, who is now conducting astrobiology research. This is related to the glacier work because there is ice on several moons in the solar system. Dr Elliott says: “We know that ice is a suitable habitat for microbes so this is exciting stuff! I am continuing the glaciers research on Earth with the help of undergraduate students at Derby.”

Another collaborator is Dr Joseph Cook, who has provided deep ice samples. Dr Elliott explains: “Joe, like me, wants to understand how microbes contribute to the functioning of the Earth. Ultimately, the aim of such work is to help us manage and look after the planet in the best possible way.”

closeup of some coral in a fish tank

Environmental Sustainability Research Centre

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