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ISME J. 2014 Jan;8(1):139-49. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.140. Epub 2013 Aug 29.

Bacterial genome replication at subzero temperatures in permafrost.

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Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA.
1] College of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou, China [2] National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA.
Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers University, NJ, USA.


Microbial metabolic activity occurs at subzero temperatures in permafrost, an environment representing ∼25% of the global soil organic matter. Although much of the observed subzero microbial activity may be due to basal metabolism or macromolecular repair, there is also ample evidence for cellular growth. Unfortunately, most metabolic measurements or culture-based laboratory experiments cannot elucidate the specific microorganisms responsible for metabolic activities in native permafrost, nor, can bulk approaches determine whether different members of the microbial community modulate their responses as a function of changing subzero temperatures. Here, we report on the use of stable isotope probing with (13)C-acetate to demonstrate bacterial genome replication in Alaskan permafrost at temperatures of 0 to -20 °C. We found that the majority (80%) of operational taxonomic units detected in permafrost microcosms were active and could synthesize (13)C-labeled DNA when supplemented with (13)C-acetate at temperatures of 0 to -20 °C during a 6-month incubation. The data indicated that some members of the bacterial community were active across all of the experimental temperatures, whereas many others only synthesized DNA within a narrow subzero temperature range. Phylogenetic analysis of (13)C-labeled 16S rRNA genes revealed that the subzero active bacteria were members of the Acidobacteria, Actinobacteria, Chloroflexi, Gemmatimonadetes and Proteobacteria phyla and were distantly related to currently cultivated psychrophiles. These results imply that small subzero temperature changes may lead to changes in the active microbial community, which could have consequences for biogeochemical cycling in permanently frozen systems.

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