Freshwater microbiology and climate change in the Canadian Arctic | Microbial Diversity

The Arctic is warming at rates more than twice the global average, and much larger changes are projected for high northern latitudes by the end of this century. In our project we study freshwater microbiology to identify sentinel microbiome properties of northern freshwater environments that can be used to improve surveillance of Arctic ecosystem health in the face of these increasing climate perturbations. The project is funded by funded by a UK-Canadian partnership bursary and in collaboration with researchers from Laval University and Centre for Northern Studies (CEN) – and is part of Sentinel North.

Panoramic photo showing the landscape. Various shrubs, trees and bushes are visible on a rocky ground in the foreground. A pool stretches from the middle to the bottom of the image to the right of the centre. A scattering of coniferous trees are present at the rear of the image.
Sub-Arctic taiga landscape with diverse freshwater ecosystems near Kuujjuarapik-Whapmagoostui, Nunavik, northern Quebec, Canada

Of particular importance are cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, as they are keystone primary producers, contributors of bioavailable nitrogen, drivers of food webs and carbon cycling in Arctic freshwater ecosystems. However, little is known about their biodiversity in the Canadian Arctic. I therefore, visited Canada this August to carry out field work and collect samples from freshwater environments such as lakes, ponds and streams to carry out DNA sequencing analysis of the freshwater microbiology.

The first part of the field work was based in Cambridge Bay at latitude 60° N, which is located on Victoria Island along the North West Passage. I was very lucky to be one of the first people to be able to stay at the brand new accommodation of the recently built Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS).

The weather was fantastic during my stay with temperatures up to 20˚C, which unfortunately also meant that it was perfect conditions for mosquitos. I sampled cyanobacteria, microbial biofilms and lake water for DNA sequencing around Cambridge Bay but also in the watershed of the big Greiner Lake further away from town.

These trips were enabled by the amazing support of the CHARS scientific technicians who took me across the rocky terrain and ditches to many interesting lakes and ponds on a quad bike. Several of these lakes are also part of established monitoring sites and I hope that my DNA-based sequencing analysis will be able to contribute to these long term science projects.

Venturing out to sites away from town definitely showed how rich the flora and fauna is in the tundra. I was able to see many birds including jaegers and herons. On one of the excursions I also saw two Arctic fox pups jumping and racing across the rich green tundra vegetation along our route.

Photo showing Anne in black waterproofs standing, entering text into a notebook while Jacquie crouches by a pool to take a sample. They are standing in a rocky landscape with grasses covering many of the stones. Various pools and streams are seen across the landscape.
Anne Jungblut (standing) and Jacquie Ujetz (crouching) sampling cyanobacteria and water samples in the sub Arctic
Photo showing the cyanobacterial colony on the ground. The yellowy-brown algal colony is reminiscent of seaweed, with a folded, flattened, shiny surface stretching across the ground.
A jelly-like Nostoc colony growing on wet soil

For the second part of my trip I carried out the field work with my collaborator Prof Warwick F. Vincent from Laval University and the Centre for Northern Studies (CEN). We were based at the CEN station in Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik in Northern Quebec at Hutson Bay, latitude 55° N and again received amazing help from the CEN station staff throughout our stay. As in the Cambridge Bay region, we found plenty of sites to collect freshwater cyanobacteria, microbial biofilms and water samples.

Photo of a sculpture. It is made of slabs of stone lying one on top of the other, or beside each other, in layers to form the shape of a human with arms outstretched.
An Inuit Inuksuk at the Hudson Bay, Kuujjuarapik, near the Great Whale River, Nunavik, Canada

Now that I am back at the Museum in London, we have a lot of samples to process. We will do DNA sequencing to study the microbial biodiversity, richness and distribution across the Arctic. This will also include a comparison with cyanobacteria collections at the Museum from the Arctic Expedition under Captain Sir Georges Nares (1875-76). This includes a cyanobacteria specimen that was collected at Floe-Berg Beach (82 N) which was the “Alert” winter quarters for the expedition located on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canadian High Arctic. It is likely to be one of the oldest cyanobacteria specimens from the Arctic.

Photo of the building from outside. the architecture is very modern in style with stained or white painted wooden panelling prevalent. One wall is covered in solar panels.
An Inuit Inuksuk at the Hudson Bay, Kuujjuarapik, near the Great Whale River, Nunavik, Canada

In summary, the field work was a great success and I am still amazed by the biodiversity in the freshwater lakes and abundance of cyanobacteria and its contribution to freshwater and terrestrial biodiversity and nitrogen fixation. If everything is going according to plan, we should have the first results in a couple of months for presentation at the ArcticChange meeting this December in Quebec-city, Canada.

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