Antarctic microbial diversity: the basis of polar ecosystem processes
Microorganisms are fundamental to the functioning of Antarctic ecosystems. Although microbial biomass can be immense in Southern Ocean blooms and freshwater cyanobacterial mats, species richness is generally more restricted than it is in temperate regions. However, there are representatives of a broad variety of taxa providing a diverse gene pool. Species diversity may be low while metabolic flexibility is high so that a few strains can provide most necessary functions. In this context, biodiversity is the sum of biological potential. This Special Issue highlights aspects of microbial ecology that can be studied only in Antarctica or which are defined most clearly in Antarctic habitats. Relatively simple microbial communities, or conspicuous species within them, can be used as indicators of microbial processes and responses to environmental change. These include the palaeological record of benthic diatoms and response of soil cyanobacterial communities to regional warming and UV-B stress. The climatic conditions and relict babitats of the Antarctic dry valleys are a valuable analogue for detecting microbial life and diversity on Mars. The global microbial biodiversity initiative Diversitas and international Antarctic networks such as BIOTAS (Biological Investigations of Terrestrial Antarctic Systems) harness taxonomic and ecophysiological expertize to understand better these unique polar ecosystems.