Biomarkers and Metabolic Patterns in the Sediments of Evolving Glacial Lakes as a Proxy for Planetary Lake Exploration

Víctor Parro, Yolanda Blanco, Fernando Puente-Sánchez, Luis A. Rivas, Mercedes Moreno-Paz, Alex Echeverría, Guillermo Chong-Díaz, Cecilia Demergasso, Nathalie A. Cabrol. 2018. Biomarkers and Metabolic Patterns in the Sediments of Evolving Glacial Lakes as a Proxy for Planetary Lake Exploration. Astrobiology 18, 5, 586-606, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2015.1342

Oligotrophic glacial lakes in the Andes Mountains serve as models to study the effects of climate change on natural biological systems. The persistent high UV regime and evolution of the lake biota due to deglaciation make Andean lake ecosystems potential analogues in the search for life on other planetary bodies. Our objective was to identify microbial biomarkers and metabolic patterns that represent time points in the evolutionary history of Andean glacial lakes, as these may be used in long-term studies as microscale indicators of climate change processes. We investigated a variety of microbial markers in shallow sediments from Laguna Negra and Lo Encanado lakes (Region Metropolitana, Chile). An on-site immunoassay-based Life Detector Chip (LDChip) revealed the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria, methanogenic archaea, and exopolymeric substances from Gammaproteobacteria. Bacterial and archaeal 16S rRNA gene sequences obtained from field samples confirmed the results from the immunoassays and also revealed the presence of Alpha-, Beta-, Gamma-, and Deltaproteobacteria, as well as cyanobacteria and methanogenic archaea. The complementary immunoassay and phylogenetic results indicate a rich microbial diversity with active sulfate reduction and methanogenic activities along the shoreline and in shallow sediments. Sulfate inputs from the surrounding volcanic terrains during deglaciation may explain the observed microbial biomarker and metabolic patterns, which differ with depth and between the two lakes. A switch from aerobic and heterotrophic metabolisms to anaerobic ones such as sulfate reduction and methanogenesis in the shallow shores likely reflects the natural evolution of the lake sediments due to deglaciation. Hydrodynamic deposition of sediments creates compartmentalization (e.g., sediments with different structure and composition surrounded by oligotrophic water) that favors metabolic transitions. Similar phenomena would be expected to occur on other planetary lakes, such as those of Titan, where watery niches fed by depositional events would be surrounded by a sea of hydrocarbons.

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