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Bio-analysis of subglacial volcanic lakes as exoplanet analogues

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AstroLakes (Bio-analysis of subglacial volcanic lakes as exoplanet analogues)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2018-05-31

AstroLakes proposed to study the biodiversity and ecology of Lake East Skaftárkatlar Iceland.
This volcanic subglacial lake results from the interaction of an ice cover melting under the effect of geothermal activity, making it a unique ecosystem on Earth displaying extreme conditions for microbial life.
However, studying life in such environment comes with a number of technical difficulties, notably to access and sample the water body and attempt to cultivate its highly specialized inhabitants.
In this context, AstroLakes aimed at obtaining complete genomes in order to enable in-depth analysis of the community structure, functional capacities and overall ecology.
Studying this lake brings two main source of value for the society. One is purely and scientific, with a better understanding of the evolution of life and ecology in an extreme environment on Earth. This brings knowledge in the field of astrobiology, since the conditions in the Lake are potentially analogous to that of frozen moons such as Enceladus. The second main interest is in the very nature of the organisms found in an extreme environment and adapted to either cold or hot temperatures, absence of oxygen or light, presence of sulfur species. Indeed the gene repertoire of such organisms is likely to contain enzymes of biotechnological or -to a lesser extend - medical interest.
The main objectives included building a first ecosystem model for the lake and acquiring genomes of its inhabitants.
The work included attempts to cultivate the organisms from the original samples aiming at isolating bacterial species, and attempts to isolate them without need for cultivation through flow-cytometry and single-cell analysis.
Those approaches raised a number of technical issues and the research was focused on deeply-sequenced metagenomes sequenced from the original samples.
These bio-informatic analyses included the extraction and assembly of full-length ribosomal operons, resulting on high-quality community structure profiles, while revealing rather new radiations of life with distant relatives in public databases.
Those results were then used to analyze the genes and metabolic functions available in the metagenomes shedding light on the contribution of the most abundant community members in carbon, nitrogen and sulfur metabolisms.
Finally, new sequencing methods were performed and combined with the existing data to attempt to assemble circular genomes out of the metagenomes. Those works are still ongoing but show very positive preliminary results.
The results from the bioinformatic analysis of the metagenomes were combined into a scientific publication currently under review in the ISME journal.
They were also presented to the scientific community and the general public as part of the Icelandic Biological Conference and the European Researcher's night.
In addition, the work was also presented in two 9th-grade icelandic classes with the aim to promote scientific careers and raise awareness on the scientific challenge that constitutes global warming and environmental collapse.
AstroLakes strongly enhanced the scientific profile of its main investigator Gregory K. FARRANT by acquiring and enhancing knowledge on project management and various cutting-edge scientific methods.
Additionally, the researcher grew up towards excellence and scientific independence.
AstroLakes also contributed to develop a technical framework for the bio-analysis of environmental genomic datasets which already found use in other scientific projects.
Finally, the project and its scientific context were also used to promote scientific research and raise ecological awareness towards the upcoming generation of scientists and more broadly to the general public through popularization publications in various media.