Complex Structure but Simple Function in Microbial Mats from Antarctic Lakes

TitleComplex Structure but Simple Function in Microbial Mats from Antarctic Lakes
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsHawes, I, Sumner, DY, Jungblut, AD
EditorHurst, CJ
Book TitleThe Structure and Function of Aquatic Microbial Communities
Pagination91 - 120
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
ISBN Number978-3-030-16775-2
Keywordsbiofilm, microbial ecology, microbial structures, self-organising structures, stromatolite

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.