The historic view of ice-bound ecosystems has been one of a predominantly lifeless environment, where microorganisms certainly exist but are assumed to be either completely inactive or in a state of long-term dormancy. However, this standpoint has been progressively overturned in the past 20 years as studies have started to reveal the importance of microbial life in the functioning of these environments. Our present knowledge of the distribution, taxonomy, and metabolic activity of such microbial life has been derived primarily from laboratory-based analyses of collected field samples. To date, only a restricted range of life detection and characterization techniques have been applied in the field. Specific examples include direct observation and DNA-based techniques (microscopy, specific stains, and community profiling based on PCR amplification), the detection of biomarkers (such as adenosine triphosphate), and measurements of metabolism [through the uptake and incorporation of radiolabeled isotopes or chemical alteration of fluorescent substrates (umbelliferones are also useful here)]. On-going improvements in technology mean that smaller and more robust life detection and characterization systems are continually being designed, manufactured, and adapted for in-field use. Adapting technology designed for other applications is the main source of new methodology, and the range of techniques is currently increasing rapidly. Here we review the current use of technology and techniques to detect and characterize microbial life within icy environments and specifically its deployment to in-field situations. We discuss the necessary considerations, limitations, and adaptations, review emerging technologies, and highlight the future potential. Successful application of these new techniques to in-field studies will certainly generate new insights into the way ice bound ecosystems function.
|Advances in Applied Microbiology
|Published - 2012