Poles apart: biodiversity and biogeography of sea ice bacteria

Annu Rev Microbiol. 1999;53:189-215. doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.53.1.189.


This review introduces the subjects of bacterial biodiversity and biogeography. Studies of biogeography are important for understanding biodiversity, the occurrence of threatened species, and the ecological role of free-living and symbiotic prokaryotes. A set of postulates is proposed for biogeography as a guide to determining whether prokaryotes are "cosmopolitan" (found in more than one geographic location on Earth) or candidate endemic species. The term "geovar" is coined to define a geographical variety of prokaryote that is restricted to one area on Earth or one host species. This review discusses sea ice bacteriology as a test case for examining bacterial diversity and biogeography. Approximately 7% of Earth's surface is covered by sea ice, which is colonized principally by psychrophilic microorganisms. This extensive community of microorganisms, referred to as the sea ice microbial community (SIMCO), contains algae (mostly diatoms), protozoa, and bacteria. Recent investigations indicate that the sea ice bacteria fall into four major phylogenetic groups: the proteobacteria, the Cytophaga-Flavobacterium-Bacteroides (CFB) group, and the high and low mol percent gram-positive bacteria. Archaea associated with sea ice communities have also been reported. Several novel bacterial genera and species have been discovered, including Polaromonas, Polaribacter, Psychroflexus, Gelidibacter, and Octadecabacter; many others await study. Some of the gram-negative sea ice bacteria have among the lowest maximum temperatures for growth known, < 10 degrees C for some strains. The polar sea ice environment is an ideal habitat for studying microbial biogeography because of the dispersal issues involved. Dispersal between poles is problematic because of the long distances and the difficulty of transporting psychrophilic bacteria across the equator. Studies to date indicate that members of some genera occur at both poles; however, cosmopolitan species have not yet been discovered. Additional research on polar sea ice bacteria is needed to resolve this issue and extend our understanding of its microbial diversity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antarctic Regions
  • Arctic Regions
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Geography
  • Ice*
  • Seawater / microbiology*
  • Water Microbiology*


  • Ice