Microbe study highlights Greenland ice sheet toxicity

July 10, 2017, Institute of Physics
Credit: NASA

The Greenland ice sheet is often seen as a pristine environment, but new research has revealed that may not be the case.

A Danish-led study, published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, examined how microbes from the have the potential to resist and degrade globally-emitted contaminants such as mercury, lead, PAH and PCB.

Dr Aviaja Hauptmann, from the University of Greenland, led the research. She said: "Globally emitted contaminants accumulate in the Arctic and are stored in the frozen environments of the cryosphere, essentially meaning they have become reservoirs of toxic chemicals.

"Our understanding of how biological processes interact with contamination in the Arctic is limited, which is why we hope our study represents a large step forward in the understanding and solving of this problem."

The researchers took samples from multiple surface ice locations on the Greenland ice sheet, which they analysed using metagenomic data and binned genomes. Their results show that the microbial communities found in the ice sheets have the potential to resist and degrade contaminants.

Dr Hauptmann said: "The microbial potential to degrade anthropogenic contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), (PAHs), and the heavy metals mercury and lead, was found to be widespread, and not limited to regions close to human activities."

They also found that binned, or grouped, genomes showed close resemblance to microorganisms isolated from contaminated habitats. Since the genetic potential of contaminant resistance and degradation usually indicates the presence of the relevant contaminants, their results indicate that, from a microbiological perspective, the Greenland ice is not a pristine .

Dr Hauptmann added: "More attention needs to be paid to the potential release of anthropogenic in this fast-changing environment. As the ice sheets melt due to climate change, they have the potential not only to increase sea level, but also pollute the environment around them through the release of other anthropogenic pollutants that have accumulated in them."

Explore further: Microbes on ice sheets produce bioreactive carbon that is exported to downstream ecosystems

More information: "Contamination of the Arctic reflected in microbial metagenomes from the Greenland ice sheet" Environmental Research Letters (2017). iopscience.iop.org/article/10. … 088/1748-9326/aa7445

Related Stories

Figuring out how fast Greenland is melting

July 5, 2017

A new analysis of Greenland's past temperatures will help scientists figure out how fast the island's vast ice sheet is melting, according to a new report from University of Arizona atmospheric scientists.

Preserving the health of the Arctic

May 3, 2013

Lars-Otto Reiersen is a marine biologist by training, now working as an environmental scientist in Norway. He has led the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) for over two decades. AMAP advises the governments ...

Climate change clues revealed by ice sheet collapse

April 24, 2017

The rapid decline of ancient ice sheets could help scientists predict the impact of modern-day climate and sea-level change, according to research by the universities of Stirling in Scotland and Tromsø in Norway.

Recommended for you

Research unlocks secrets of iron storage in algae

December 12, 2018

New research shows that phytoplankton iron storage strategies may determine which species thrive in changing oceans and impact marine food webs, according to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Parsec
1 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2017
Current chemical analysis allows detections of toxins in parts per trillion concentrations in most instances. I would be much more impressed with direct measurements of such toxins and their relevant concentrations than in the presence of proxies like microbes that eat them.
Graeme
not rated yet Jul 12, 2017
Mercury and lead being "degraded" by bacteria sounds dubious. Perhaps they are rendered safe by conversion to some other compound. Mercury, may go to the more toxic methyl mercury.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.