CRUSH2LIFE

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences

Abstract

Microbes live wherever water is found at the Earth's surface, and the water found at the beds of ice sheets and glaciers is no different. Microbes grow beneath ice sheets, and help to convert the rock and sediment that glaciers crush up into fertiliser (N, P and Fe) that helps the microscopic plants in surrounding streams, lakes, coastal waters and oceans to grow. The microbes also produce greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Just where the microbes which live beneath the ice sheets, for example in the subglacial lakes beneath Antarctica, get their energy to grow is a problem, since there is no light in these cold, dark habitats. The microbial communities beneath ice sheets are destined to die out unless something is continually supplying them with an energy source other than light. We think that "something" is something to do with glaciers crushing the rocks at their beds. The minerals are held together by tiny positive and negative electrical charges. These charges cancel each other out usually, but when the mineral is split by the huge weight of the glacier, their surfaces contain tiny positive and negative electrical charges, called radicals. These tiny charges are very reactive, so reactive that the positive charges grab OH from water and leave behind hydrogen gas, and the negative charges grab H from water and leave behind hydrogen peroxide. particular types of microbes enjoy feeding on hydrogen, since it produces lots of energy. The hydrogen peroxide is not immediately friendly to microbes, but it does react very well with organic matter in the crushed rock, producing carbon dioxide and other small organic molecules that microbes can use for energy sources. Some microbes combine hydrogen gas with carbon dioxide to make methane, and other microbes can use the methane as an energy source. So, the crushing and wetting of rock by glaciers and ice sheets produces a set of chemicals that can be used as energy sources by lots of different bacteria. Glaciers and ice sheets crush their bedrock continuously, and so we believe that this gives a continuous source of energy and chemicals to microbes living at their beds. We need to test these ideas by crushing simple rocks, such as quartz, and organic matter, such as peat, in the laboratory and measuring what types of chemicals come off the crushed material when we add water to it. If we're right, this will be a big step in understanding how life persists under glaciers and ice sheets. This is important, because in the past, when the earth was completely frozen on Snowball Earth, life was likely to have persisted under the ice sheets that covered large parts of the land surface. We hope that a Nuclear Winter never arises, but if it did, life in the form of microbes would persist beneath the ice sheets. Ice sheets occur on planets in the Universe apart from Earth, and it just might be crushing provides the chemicals to sustain life beneath them. CRUSH2LIFE will test whether we are right in thinking that these examples have any substance.

Planned Impact

We plan the following activities to reach out to our three target audiences.

1) Research communities: members of CRUSH2LIFE are very productive and highly cited in the current internationally peer reviewed literature, and this project can only accelerate the production of high profile papers in high profile journals. Members too are active contributors to the organisation and delivery of international, national and local research meetings, where they are also frequently invited to speak at such meetings. The high profile that CRUSH2LIFE will acquire within the international research arena will ensure that this expectation on CRUSH2LIFE members is continued. Specifically, we are committed to organize special sessions on ice biogeochemistry at the UK IGS, EUG and AGU meetings.

2) Policy makers concerned with Space Science: the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot/) was established to ensure that societally relevant environmental research could be easily linked and embedded within the social sciences, with a particular desire to influence Policy issues. We will make use of the good working links that the Cabot Institute has with the Government Office for Science. We will arrange, both with NERC and the Cabot Institute, for potentially interested stake holders to attend science briefing meetings in the second, third and final years of the project. Finally, we will offer to act as ambassadors for NERC-funded science in relevant impact activities that will arise during the course of the project.

3) Engagement with the Public via NSF-funded SASLA (Scientific Access Subglacial Lakes Antarctica) project, web sites and other outreach activities: the lead PI will be spending eight weeks in Antarctica mid Dec'18 -mid-Feb'19) with the SALSA project, drilling into and sampling Subglacial Lake Mercer. This will allow the project to utilise more subglacial lake sediment, and presents a first class opportunity to produce a series of video blogs that will raise the public and international profile of the project. These blogs will include preparations in the lab in advance of deployment, flights in and out of the field, drilling the hole and sampling lake waters and sediments, along with life in field labs, tens and mess.

We will engage at a local level in activities such as the annual Bristol Festival of Science. We will work with local schools via the STEM teams in Bristol to provide live links during the field season when the pupils and science team can discuss the project science.

We have established good contacts and relations with the BBC, Sky and Discovery during the course of other projects, and we will pitch our project to these companies for exposure.
We will work with the University 'Press, PR & Education' teams, to promote findings via media relations, web and other engagement activity. For example, academics will be encouraged to write informative blogs for reputable websites line 'The Conversation' https://theconversation.com/). Articles in this format are often picked up by the mainstream press and result in NERC science being woven into a popular narrative with tens of thousands of hits/'likes'.

Publications

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