Endolithic growth is one of the most spectacular microbial adaptations to extreme environmental constraints and the predominant life-form in the ice-free areas of Continental Antarctica. Although Antarctic endolithic microbial communities are known to host among the most resistant and extreme-adapted organisms, our knowledge on microbial diversity and composition in this peculiar niche is still limited. In this study, we investigated the diversity and structure of the fungal assemblage in the cryptoendolithic communities inhabiting sandstone using a meta-barcoding approach targeting the fungal Internal Transcribed Sequence region 1 (ITS1). Samples were collected from 14 sites in the Victoria Land, along an altitudinal gradient ranging from 1,000 to 3,300 m a.s.l. and from 29 to 96 km distance to coast. Our study revealed a clear dominance of a 'core' group of fungal taxa consistently present across all the samples, mainly composed of lichen-forming and Dothideomycetous fungi. Pareto-Lorenz curves indicated a very high degree of specialization (F0 approximately 95%), suggesting these communities are highly adapted but have limited ability to recover after perturbations. Overall, both fungal community biodiversity and composition did not show any correlation with the considered abiotic parameters, potentially due to strong fluctuations of environmental conditions at local scales.
Keywords: Antarctica; ITS meta-barcoding; endolithic communities; extremophiles; fungi.