Complex Structure but Simple Function in Microbial Mats from Antarctic Lakes

  • Ian HawesEmail author
  • Dawn Sumner
  • Anne D. Jungblut
Part of the Advances in Environmental Microbiology book series (AEM, volume 7)


Microbial mats growing under the permanent ice cover of Antarctic lakes occupy an exceptionally low-disturbance regime. Constant temperature, the absence of bioturbation or physical disturbance from wind action or ice formation allow mats to accumulate, as annual growth layers, over many decades or even centuries. In so doing they often assume decimetre scale, three-dimensional morphologies such as elaborate pinnacle structures and conical mounds. Here we combine existing and new information to describe microbial structures in three Antarctic lakes—simple prostrate mats in Lake Hoare, emergent cones in Lake Untersee and elaborate pinnacles in Lake Vanda. We attempt to determine whether structures emerge simply from uncoordinated organism-environment interactions or whether they represent an example of “emergent complexity”, within which some degree of self-organisation occurs to confer a holistic functional advantage to component organisms. While some holistic advantages were evident from the structures—the increase in surface area allows greater biomass and overall productivity and nutrient exchange with overlying water—the structures could also be understood in terms of potential interactions between individuals, their orientation and their environment. The data lack strong evidence of coordinated behaviour directed towards holistic advantages to the structure, though hints of coordinated behaviour are present as non-random distributions of structural elements. The great size of microbial structures in Antarctic lakes, and their relatively simple community composition, makes them excellent models for more focused research on microbial cooperation.


Biofilm Stromatolite Self-organising structures Microbial structures Microbial ecology 



The information presented in this contribution is derived from field and laboratory work that would have been impossible without the support of many people and organisations. Logistic support was provided by Antarctica New Zealand, the US Antarctic Program and Antarctic Logistics Centre International. We thank all of our Antarctic field colleagues, in particular Drs Dale Andersen and Tyler Mackey, without whom the underwater research would not have been possible. We also thank the reviewers and editors for helpful comments and hard work to see the volume to production.

Compliance with Ethical Standards


This study was funded by NASA Astrobiology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology (NNX08AO19G and NN13AE77A), the New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (CO1605 and UOWX1401), the National Science Foundation (MCM-LTER grant number 1115245) and the Tawani Foundation.

Conflict of Interest

Ian Hawes declares that he has no conflict of interest. Dawn Sumner declares that she has no conflict of interest. Anne D. Jungblut declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WaikatoTaurangaNew Zealand
  2. 2.Department of Earth and Planetary SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  3. 3.Life Sciences Department, Natural History MuseumLondonUK

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