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The Role of Snow Patches on the Spatial Distribution of Soil Microbial Communities and Biogeochemical Cycling in the Antarctic Dry Valleys

Two models have been proposed to describe controls over microbial biogeography. One model proposes that microbes are ubiquitously distributed across the global environment, and that environmental conditions select for taxa physiologically adapted to local physical conditions. An alternative model predicts that dispersal is the important limitation to the distribution of microorganisms and that spatial heterogeneity of microbial communities is a result of both dispersal and local environmental limitations. According to both models, spatial heterogeneity of microbial communities may be especially pronounced in extreme ecosystems where the environmental selection for organisms with suitable physiology is most strongly manifest. We propose that Antarctic terrestrial environments are ideal places to examine microbial biogeography for 3 reasons: 1) the pristine nature and remoteness of Antarctica minimizes the prevalence of exotic species dispersed through human vectors; 2) the extreme conditions of Antarctic environments provide a strong environmental filter which limits the establishment of non-indigenous taxa; and 3) extreme heterogeneity in the terrestrial environment provides natural gradients of soil conditions (temperature, water and nutrient availability). In the proposed research we will investigate the influence of snow on the composition and spatial distribution of soil microbial communities and linked biogeochemical cycling in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. We will conduct fieldwork at the landscape scale (repeated remote sensing to characterize snow distribution), at the valley and patch scales (quantify snow patch ablation, microbial communities and biogeochemical cycling in subnivian soils). We hypothesize that snow patches play an important role in structuring the spatial distribution of soil microbial communities and their associated ecosystem functioning because of the physical and hydrological influences that snow patches have on the soil environment. The research will contribute to greater public awareness of the importance of polar research to fundamental questions of biology, ecology and hydrology through direct linkages with International Antarctic Institute public outreach activities, including dissemination of web-based learning units on environmental science and microbiology, targeted as resources for secondary and post-secondary educators. Three graduate students, one postdoctoral scholar and multiple undergraduates will participate in the research activities.

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