Are glacier surfaces the last refuge of an evolutionarily ancient lineage of unknown fungi?

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS


Glaciers and ice-sheets are increasingly recognized as the homes of surprisingly diverse and active microbial ecosystems. Even the mere prospect of life in Antarctic subglacial lakes, isolated for many millennia, attracts major international attention and investment. However since life certainly flourishes in unusual habitats on glacier surfaces. these should not be overlooked in our attempts to explore microbial biodiversity. Cryoconite holes are one such habitat, formed when rocky dusts are colonized by a diverse and highly active microbial consortium, forming a darkened microbe-mineral aggregate which increases the transfer of the sun's energy to ice and thus accelerates surface melt. My doctoral studies centred on the diversity and functioning of the bacterial community of cryoconite, which is dominated by organisms closely related to taxa in a broad range of habitats world-wide. In stark contrast, of the eukaryotes inhabiting cryoconite on High Arctic glaciers, the most abundant group by biomass, Fungi, appears strongly dominated by two related groups of fungi hitherto unknown to science. These fungi account for 75% of the sequences in collections of fungal DNA extracted from Svalbard cryoconite, and according to microscopy using genetic stains specific to the group, are derived from small ovoid cells attached to debris. Sequenced genes from specific DNA tests for the fungi demonstrate their presence in cryoconite worldwide suggesting a broad geographic range while the absence of affiliated sequences from DNA databases and the failure to detect the group in periglacial habitats imply their restriction to the cryoconite group near the root of the fungal tree of life and provide a crudely estimated divergence during the Neoproterozoic era, which consisted of major world-wide glaciations, including a hypothesized "Snowball Earth". Little else is known about these fungi, tentatively named the "cryomycetes". Therefore, I seek support to detail their evolutionary history, population structure, ecological functions and interactions. Doing so will permit the testing of the hypotheses that i)"cryomycetes" assume a significant role in the functioning of the extant cryoconite ecosystem ii)they form a major new branch on the fungal tree of life iii)cryoconite holes have formed a stable refuge for these fungi over glacial cycles. As a consequence, I anticipate insights into the interactions between cryoconite biodiversity and melting glaciers, both in the present day, and potentially in the postulated transition from a Neoproterozoic "Snowball" to a "Mudball" Earth.

Planned Impact

The primary objectives of the project are to characterize the phylogeny, distribution and ecological interactions of the fungal lineage tentatively termed the "Cryomycetes" which I discovered on Svalbard glaciers, thus helping to elucidate the natural history of this mysterious group of fungi. To achieve this, the primary mechanism of securing academic impact will be to publish the project's outcomes via peer-reviewed publication. Datasets will be made available to the relevant NERC data centres, to EBI-EMBL and EBI-metagenomes and MG-RAST to assure longer-term data security and provide additional contextual information. Characterizing these fungi, which appear endemic to glaciers and dominate the fungal community of cryoconite, will provide insights into the roles of fungi in the glacial ecosystem. Therefore, the project's impact will be maximised by the establishment of an international network of glacier ecologists interested in fungi with the PI and project partners at its hub. Finally, although climate change, glacier recession and threats to biodiversity are commonly appreciated issues which may concern the public, the project offers an opportunity to engage with the public and policy-makers to address interactions between these issues, and I will do so using the project's findings, images, videos, and overall outcomes to support direct engagement with regional policymakers, interactive webpages, research-led teaching and outreach activities with schoolchildren.


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Title @icybear79 
Description A twitter account which posts images and microblogs associated with glacier ecology fieldwork and research 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact 241 tweets, 200 followers and 35 favourites as of 13 Nov 2014. Material tweeted by @icybear79 has resulted in media engagement including national TV appearance. Combined with @arwynedwards, this account has been responsible for the tweeting of imagery associated with which has led it to be in the top 2% of all articles tracked by AltMetrics. 
Description An educational/outreach video on life in icy environments. Led by Dr Joseph Cook and supported by the Rolex Enterprise Awards, this film examines the rich ecosystem of glaciers and their interactions with climate change. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Released last week, it has 2212 views on vimeo at the time of writing and has been promoted by Chris Hadfield (Canadian astronaut), Jim Al-Khalili (BBC) and David Shukman (BBC). 
Description We have found that an enigmatic lineage of fungi is present on glaciers on Svalbard, European Alps, Alaska, Greenland, Tien Shan, the Himalaya and Antarctica. We have characterized the contribution of this fungal group to the biodiversity of Svalbard and Alpine glaciers We have evidence of its contribution to glacier surface carbon cycling We are currently developing our datasets on the cellular morphology and single-cell genomes of the fungal lineage.
Exploitation Route Academic research
Sectors Energy,Environment,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description The award is current and research is ongoing. However as a result of the award, dissemination of outcomes to the general public, other researchers and Arctic policymakers is contributing in a shift in perception of glaciers and ice sheets as glacial ecosystems. In due course it is anticipated the scope of these impact will increase as further findings are published.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Hugh Cary Gilson Memorial Award
Amount £3,986 (GBP)
Organisation Freshwater Biological Association 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2013 
End 05/2014
Description IBERS PhD studentship
Amount £55,000 (GBP)
Organisation Aberystwyth University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2013 
End 09/2017
Description National Research Network Health & Biosciences PhD
Amount £80,000 (GBP)
Organisation Welsh Assembly 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 09/2018
Description National Research Network Low Carbon Energy and Environment
Amount £820,000 (GBP)
Organisation Welsh Assembly 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 04/2019
Description Research Grant
Amount £14,986 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2014 
End 12/2014
Description Aberystwyth Science Cafe 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked questions and discussions afterwards.

Approached by several audience members from geosciences background and advised their view of the cryosphere had been significantly altered by the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013