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NERC GW4+ DTP Projects 2020: (Dynamic Earth, Living World, Changing Planet) Microbial life and carbon cycling in glaciers environments

Project Description

Probing novel pathways of carbon cycling in glaciers using metageomics. Carbon is essential for life and forms the building blocks of all organic compounds. At the base level, it is cycled by micro-organisms which extract carbon from non-living sources, playing a fundamental role in the carbon cycle. For instance, algae and photosynthetic bacteria fix carbon dioxide into sugars (carbohydrates). Other microorganisms (heterotrophs) respire carbon to carbon dioxide or methane, while others consume these gaseous products. However, in many isolated, deep and extreme environments on Earth, such as glaciers, organic carbon is either in short supply, is highly recalcitrant or must be fixed from inorganic forms. How microbes mediate carbon cycling in these challenging environments is important for understanding how life survives at the limits of life and how ice sheets contribute more broadly to global carbon cycles. These extremophile microorganisms may also have novel pathways by which they can cycle ancient or recalcitrant carbon, with potential biotechnological application. At present there is a major gap in understanding of how microorganisms cycle carbon beneath glaciers, which has the potential to be accessed via a combination of experimental and molecular microbiological study. The aim of this project is to study how microbial life accesses different sources of carbon in glacial environments. Specifically, the objectives are to: 1) identify which microbial groups are found in a wide range of surface and subglacial sediments from around the world based upon metagenomic data., and 2) establish, via experiments combined with molecular data, how different microbial groups (e.g., bacteria and archaea) access different sources of carbon in these extreme environments and under what environmental conditions. Methods: We will carry out this work using samples collected from subglacial environments (e.g. South America, Himalayas, Antarctica, Greenland, Norway) where co-supervisor Wadham is already carrying out research on carbon cycling and biogeochemistry. The student will have the opportunity to do fieldwork via one of Wadham’s expeditions, which could be the Andes or Himalaya (relevant experience permitting). At Bristol, the student will learn to grow and isolate strains of bacterial phototrophs and heterotophs in the lab, and apply basic molecular biology techniques (e.g., DNA extraction, PCR). During the project, the student will also learn computational skills on comparative genomics to analyse genomic and metagenomic data generated in the lab and from publicly available databases (e.g., NCBI, JGI, MG-Rast). The student will learn about the biogeochemistry of glacier environments and will perform experiments incubating different types of glacial sediments under manipulated conditions to identify which groups of organisms access different sources of carbon.

Funding Notes

At least a 2.1 (Hons) degree or equivalent in a relevant quantitative subject, e.g. microbiology, bioinformatics, population genomics, environmental biotechnology, genetics, genomics, and computer science. A Masters degree in a relevant subject would be desirable but not essential. Computer programming skills would also be an advantage. Some relevant field or outdoor experience is essential for the student to participate in fieldwork.

How good is research at University of Bristol in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 46.45

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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