Journal of Microbiology

, Volume 57, Issue 4, pp 243–251 | Cite as

Growth of cyanobacterial soil crusts during diurnal freeze-thaw cycles

  • Steven K. SchmidtEmail author
  • Lara Vimercati
Microbial Ecology and Environmental Microbiology


Various Nostoc spp. and related cyanobacteria are able to survive extreme temperatures and are among the most successful colonists of high-elevation sites being exposed due to glacial retreat. It is unclear, however, if cyanobacteria can grow during the extreme freeze-thaw cycles that occur on a year-round basis at high-elevation, peri-glacial sites or if they only grow during the rare periods when freeze-thaw cycles do not occur. We conducted several experiments to determine if cyanobacteria that form biological soil crusts (BSCs) at high-elevation sites (> 5,000 m.a.s.l.) in the Andes can grow during diurnal freeze-thaw cycles on a par with those that occur in the field. Here we show that a soil crust that had been frozen at -20°C for five years was able to increase from 40% to 100% soil coverage during a 45-day incubation during which the soil temperature cycled between -12°C and 26°C every day. In a second, experiment an undeveloped soil with no visible BSCs showed a statistically significant shift in the bacterial community from one containing few cyanobacterial sequences (8% of sequences) to one dominated (27%) by Nostoc, Microcoleus, and Leptolyngbya phylotypes during a 77-day incubation with daily freeze-thaw cycles. In addition, counts of spherical Nostoc-like colonies increased significantly on the soil surface during the experiment, especially in microcosms receiving phosphorus. Taken together these results show that freeze-thaw cycles alone do not limit the growth of BSCs in high-elevation soils, and provide new insight into how life is able to thrive in one of the most extreme terrestrial environments on Earth.


biological soil crusts Nostoc commune terraforming Mars extremophiles glacier retreat soil stabilization BSCs astrobiology 


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Supplementary material

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Supplementary data Fig. S1. Soil water content measured gravimetrically during experiments 1 and 2


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Copyright information

© The Microbiological Society of Korea 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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