PhD project: Life in Extremes – Investigating the Emergence of Microbial Communities on Land

Project description

This project will investigate the characteristics of the earliest colonists of rocky environments. Newly formed habitat, for example lava flows, provide a substrate for a wide range of microbial colonists. Initial data from us (Kelly et al., 2014) showed that within 2 to 4 months, the Eyjafjallajökull lava flow in Iceland (erupted in 2010) was rapidly colonised by chemolithotrophs – organisms that use iron, sulfur and other inorganic elements and compounds as a source of energy. The study of older lava flows shows that this community eventually changes into one that uses organic compounds for energy, such as from photosynthesis or organic material delivered onto the lava flow. In this project we will use microbial culturing and molecular methods to elucidate the metabolic capabilities of organisms on newly available habitat.

 The scientific motivation of this work is to understand how newly formed subaerial planetary crust is colonised and how biogeochemical cycling of key elements in the biosphere such as nitrogen and carbon becomes established. These data will give us more fundamental insights into how new ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles are established in any disturbed or even human-altered environment. The work also has implications for elucidating what sorts of organisms might have colonized the land masses of Precambrian Earth before there was large-scale availability of carbon compounds from photosynthesis. It will also yield new insights into the habitability of basaltic environments on Mars and whether these environments could have provided energy and nutrients for life. It is offered under the School of Geosciences NERC DTP programme :

Relevant references:

Cockell, C.S., Olsson, K., Herrera, A., Meunier, A. 2009. Alteration textures in terrestrial volcanic glass and the associated bacterial community. Geobiology 7, 50-65.

Kelly L, Cockell CS, Herrera-Belaroussi A, Piceno Y, Andersen G, DeSantis T, Brodie E, Thorsteinsson T, Marteinsson V, Poly F, LeRoux X. 2011. Bacterial diversity of terrestrial crystalline volcanic rocks, Iceland. Microbial Ecology 62, 69-79.

Kelly LC, Cockell CS, Thorsteinsson T, Marteinsson V, Stevenson J. 2014. Pioneer Microbial Communities of the Fimmvörðuháls Lava Flow, Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland. Microbial Ecology, DOI 10.1007/s00248-014-0432-3

Olsson-Francis K, Simpson AE, Wolff-Boenisch D, Cockell CS. 2012. The effect of rock composition on cyanobacterial weathering of crystalline basalt and rhyolite. Geobiology 10, 434-444.

Summers S, Cockell CS, Kelly LC, Whiteley AS. 2013. Land coverage influences the bacterial community composition in the critical zone of a sub-Arctic basaltic environment. 2013, FEMS Microbiology Ecology . doi: 10.1111/1574-6941.12167.

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