Graham DE, Wallenstein MD, Vishnivetskaya TA, Waldrop MP, Phelps TJ, Pfiffner SM, Onstott TC, Whyte LG, Rivkina EM, Gilichinsky DA, Elias DA, Mackelprang R, VerBerkmoes NC, Hettich RL, Wagner D, Wullschleger SD, Jansson JK
Considering that 25% of Earth s terrestrial surface is underlain by permafrost (ground that has been continuously frozen for at least 2 years), our understanding of the diversity of microbial life in this extreme habitat is surprisingly limited. Taking into account the total mass of perennially frozen sediment (up to several hundred meters deep), permafrost contains a huge amount of buried, ancient organic carbon (Tarnocai et al., 2009). In addition, permafrost is warming rapidly in response to global climate change (Romanovsky et al., 2010), potentially leading to widespread thaw and a larger, seasonally thawed soil active layer. This concern has prompted the question: will permafrost thawing lead to the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere? This question can only be answered by understanding how the microbes residing in permafrost will respond to thaw, through processes such as respiration, fermentation, methanogenesis and CH4 oxidation (Schuur et al., 2009). Predicting future carbon fluxes is complicated by the diversity of permafrost environments, ranging from high mountains, southern boreal forests, frozen peatlands and Pleistocene ice complexes (yedoma) up to several hundred meters deep, which vary widely in soil composition, soil organic matter (SOM) quality, hydrology and thermal regimes (Figure 1). Permafrost degradation can occur in many forms: thaw can progress downward from seasonally-thawed active layer soils in warming climates or laterally because of changes in surface or groundwater flow paths (Grosse et al., 2011). Permafrost degradation can sometimes lead to dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and function
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Graham DE, Wallenstein MD, Vishnivetskaya TA, Waldrop MP, Phelps TJ, Pfiffner SM, Onstott TC, Whyte LG, Rivkina EM, Gilichinsky DA, Elias DA, Mackelprang R, VerBerkmoes NC, Hettich RL, Wagner D, Wullschleger SD, Jansson JK. 2012. Microbes in thawing permafrost: the unknown variable in the climate change equation. ISME Journal 6:709-712.