Novel and Unexpected Microbial Diversity in Acid Mine Drainage in Svalbard (78° N), Revealed by Culture-Independent Approaches

Microorganisms. 2015 Oct 13;3(4):667-94. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms3040667.


Svalbard, situated in the high Arctic, is an important past and present coal mining area. Dozens of abandoned waste rock piles can be found in the proximity of Longyearbyen. This environment offers a unique opportunity for studying the biological control over the weathering of sulphide rocks at low temperatures. Although the extension and impact of acid mine drainage (AMD) in this area is known, the native microbial communities involved in this process are still scarcely studied and uncharacterized. Several abandoned mining areas were explored in the search for active AMD and a culture-independent approach was applied with samples from two different runoffs for the identification and quantification of the native microbial communities. The results obtained revealed two distinct microbial communities. One of the runoffs was more extreme with regards to pH and higher concentration of soluble iron and heavy metals. These conditions favored the development of algal-dominated microbial mats. Typical AMD microorganisms related to known iron-oxidizing bacteria (Acidithiobacillus ferrivorans, Acidobacteria and Actinobacteria) dominated the bacterial community although some unexpected populations related to Chloroflexi were also significant. No microbial mats were found in the second area. The geochemistry here showed less extreme drainage, most likely in direct contact with the ore under the waste pile. Large deposits of secondary minerals were found and the presence of iron stalks was revealed by microscopy analysis. Although typical AMD microorganisms were also detected here, the microbial community was dominated by other populations, some of them new to this type of system (Saccharibacteria, Gallionellaceae). These were absent or lowered in numbers the farther from the spring source and they could represent native populations involved in the oxidation of sulphide rocks within the waste rock pile. This environment appears thus as a highly interesting field of potential novelty in terms of both phylogenetic/taxonomic and functional diversity.

Keywords: AMD; Arctic; Gallionella; Saccharibacteria; Svalbard; acidophiles; psychrophiles.