Taxonomic Characterization and Microbial Activity Determination of Cold-Adapted Microbial Communities in Lava Tube Ice Caves from Lava Beds National Monument, a High-Fidelity Mars Analogue Environment

Astrobiology. 2021 May;21(5):613-627. doi: 10.1089/ast.2020.2327. Epub 2021 Apr 1.


Martian lava tube caves resulting from a time when the planet was still volcanically active are proposed to contain deposits of water ice, a feature that may increase microbial habitability. In this study, we taxonomically characterized and directly measured metabolic activity of the microbial communities that inhabit lava tube ice from Lava Beds National Monument, an analogue environment to martian lava tubes. We investigated whether this environment was habitable to microorganisms by determining their taxonomic diversity, metabolic activity, and viability using both culture-dependent and culture-independent techniques. With 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we recovered 27 distinct phyla from both ice and ice-rock interface samples, primarily consisting of Actinobacteria, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Chloroflexi. Radiorespiration and Biolog EcoPlate assays found these microbial communities to be metabolically active at both 5°C and -5°C and able to metabolize diverse sets of heterotrophic carbon substrates at each temperature. Viable cells were predominantly cold adapted and capable of growth at 5°C (1.3 × 104 to 2.9 × 107 cells/mL), and 24 of 38 cultured isolates were capable of growth at -5°C. Furthermore, 14 of these cultured isolates, and 16 of the 20 most numerous amplicon sequences we recovered were most closely related to isolates and sequences obtained from other cryophilic environments. Given these results, lava tube ice appears to be a habitable environment, and considering the protections martian lava tubes offer to microbial communities from harsh surface conditions, similar martian caves containing ice may be capable of supporting extant, active microbial communities.

Keywords: Astrobiology; Caves; Cold-adapted microorganisms; Habitability; Ice; Lava tubes; Mars analogue; Microbial activity; Microbiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Caves
  • Extraterrestrial Environment
  • Ice
  • Mars*
  • Microbiota* / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • Ice
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S