Microbial Perspectives of the Methane Cycle in Siberian Permafrost Ecosystems

Dirk.Wagner [ at ] awi.de


The Arctic plays a key role in Earths climate system as global warming is predicted to be most pronounced at high latitudes and because one third of the global carbon pool is stored in ecosystems of the northern latitudes. In order to improve our understanding of the present and future carbon dynamics in climate sensitive permafrost ecosystems, the present study concentrates on investigations of microbial controls of methane fluxes, on the activity and structure of the involved microbial communities, and on their response to changing environmental conditions. For this purpose an integrated research strategy was applied, which connects trace gas flux measurements to soil ecological characterisation of permafrost habitats and molecular ecological analyses of microbial populations. Furthermore, methanogenic archaea isolated from Siberian permafrost have been used as potential keystone organisms for studying and assessing life under extreme living conditions.From 1998 to 2005, eight expeditions to the Lena Delta were carried out. Field work and sampling of different permafrost soils and sediments were mainly accomplished on Samoylov Island, central Lena Delta. In particular, the objectives of the study were: (1) to measure and balance methane fluxes from tundra environments, (2) to determine the soil ecological properties, (3) to gain more insights into the control functions of microorganisms, (4) to improve the knowledge of the abundance and biodiversity of microbial communities, and (5) to determine tolerance limits of methanogens under extreme living conditions.Long-term studies on methane fluxes were carried out since 1998. These studies revealed considerable seasonal and spatial variations of methane emissions for the different landscape units ranging from 0 to 362 mg m-2 d-1. For the overall balance of methane emissions from the entire delta, the first land cover classification based on Landsat images was performed and applied for an upscaling of the methane flux data sets. The regionally weighted mean daily methane emissions of the Lena Delta (10 mg m-2 d-1) are only one fifth of the values calculated for other Arctic tundra environments. The calculated annual methane emission of the Lena Delta amounts to about 0.03 Tg. The low methane emission rates obtained in this study are the result of the used remotely sensed high-resolution data basis, which provides a more realistic estimation of the real methane emissions on a regional scale. Soil temperature and near soil surface atmospheric turbulence were identified as the driving parameters of methane emissions. A flux model based on these variables explained variations of the methane budget corresponding to continuous processes of microbial methane production and oxidation, and gas diffusion through soil and plants reasonably well. The results show that the Lena Delta contributes significantly to the global methane balance because of its extensive wetland areas.The microbiological investigations showed that permafrost soils are colonized by high numbers of microorganisms. The total biomass is comparable to temperate soil ecosystems. Activities of methanogens and methanotrophs differed significantly in their rates and distribution patterns along both the vertical profiles and the different investigated soils. The methane production rates varied between 0.3 and 38.9 nmol h-1 g-1, while the methane oxidation ranged from 0.2 to 7.0 nmol h-1 g-1. Phylogenetic analyses of methanogenic communities revealed a distinct diversity of methanogens affiliated to Methanomicrobiaceae, Methanosarcinaceae and Methanosaetaceae, which partly form four specific permafrost clusters.The results demonstrate the close relationship between methane fluxes and the fundamental microbiological processes in permafrost soils. The microorganisms do not only survive in their extreme habitat but also can be metabolic active under in situ conditions. It was shown that a slight increase of the temperature can lead to a substantial increase in methanogenic activity within perennially frozen deposits. In case of degradation, this would lead to an extensive expansion of the methane deposits with their subsequent impacts on total methane budget. Further studies on the stress response of methanogenic archaea, especially Methanosarcina SMA-21, isolated from Siberian permafrost, revealed an unexpected resistance of the microorganisms against unfavourable living conditions. A better adaptation to environmental stress was observed at 4 °C compared to 28 °C. For the first time it could be demonstrated that methanogenic archaea from terrestrial permafrost even survived simulated Martian conditions. The results show that permafrost methanogens are more resistant than methanogens from non-permafrost environments under Mars-like climate conditions. Microorganisms comparable to methanogens from terrestrial permafrost can be seen as one of the most likely candidates for life on Mars due to their physiological potential and metabolic specificity.

Item Type
Conference (Invited talk)
Peer revision
Not peer-reviewed
Publication Status
Event Details
Colloquium in Plant Ecology, Vegetation Science, Distrurbance Ecology and Biogeography, University of Bayreuth, BayreuthJune 2007..
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Cite as
Wagner, D. (2007): Microbial Perspectives of the Methane Cycle in Siberian Permafrost Ecosystems , Colloquium in Plant Ecology, Vegetation Science, Distrurbance Ecology and Biogeography, University of Bayreuth, BayreuthJune 2007. .


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