Deepwater gunk and slimeballs: Diversity and function of benthic microbes in West Greenland lakes

slime balls at the bottom of a lake

This project aims to understand key ecological processes driven by Arctic cyanobacteria-based microbial mats in lakes in West Greenland.


In Arctic lakes, where waters are very clear and nutrients are scarce, the majority of primary production often occurs on the bottom sediments. Arctic lake benthos can be composed of complex microbial mat communities, ranging from photosynthetic microalgae and cyanobacteria, to bacteria and archaea that drive decomposition, nitrogen fixation and methane production.

Recent molecular analyses have revealed that fungi and protists, including ciliates, amoeba and flagellates are also abundant in these extreme environments. These complex biofilms play a vital role in nutrient and carbon cycling in Arctic lake-scapes and yet, largely due to practical challenges, their taxonomic richness, diversity and biogeography are infrequently studied, in comparison to lake plankton.

Lakes around the Kangerlussuaq area of West Greenland have been well studied for around 20 years, and there is a remarkable range of physical and chemical characteristics in the thousands of water bodies in this region.

Climate changes over the last 20 years has increased the water clarity in these lakes, leading to an expansion of benthos and shifts in the functional traits of diatoms that grow there. While these observations are compelling, they focus on one group of algae and nothing is yet known of broader benthic microbial communities, their functional role in Arctic lakes and how they may have changed recently as the region has warmed. DNA sequencing of environmental samples now make these questions far more accessible.

Aims of the project

  • Develop methods for quantitative sampling and analysis of benthic microbes from Arctic lakes.
  • Conduct a lake survey to understand how and why benthic microbial diversity varies across an Arctic lake district.
  • Determine how microbial diversity influences function at the ecosystem scale by comparison to limnological measurements.
  • Track changes in benthic microbial diversity and function over recent decades using palaeolimnology.

Supervision and training

This project is cross institutional between University of Nottingham, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural History Museum.

The student will acquire specialist skills in molecular biology and microbiological techniques including DNA extraction methodologies from environmental samples, PCR, high throughput sequencing technologies, bioinformatics analyses.

There will be training in numerical skills, field work, water chemistry and biochemical analysis skills. These will be accompanied by more traditional methods for phytobenthos analysis including microscopic quantification of benthic algae using light and fluorescence microscopy. There will also be opportunities to develop transferrable skills including science communication.

Eligibility and how to apply

Apply for this course through the University of Nottingham.

Learn more about the Envision Doctoral Training Programme.

Application deadline - 12pm 8 January 2021


Dillon ML, Hawes I, Jungblut AD, Mackey TJ, Eisen JA, Doran PT, Sumner DY (2020) Energetic and environmental constraints on the community structure of benthic microbial mats in lake Fryxell, Antarctica. FEMS Microbiology Ecology, doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiz207

Kleinteich J, Hildebrand F, Bahram M, Voigt AY, Wood SA, Jungblut AD, Küpper FC, Quesada A, Camacho A, Pearce DA, Convey P, Vincent WF, Zarfl C, Bork P, Dietrich DR (2017) Pole-to-Pole Connections: Similarities between Arctic and Antarctic Microbiomes and Their Vulnerability to Environmental Change. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 5 

Saros JE, Anderson NJ, Juggins S, McGowan S, Yde JC, Telling J, Bullard JE, Yallop M, Heathcote AJ, Burpee BT (2019) Arctic climate shifts drive rapid ecosystem responses across the West Greenland landscape. Environmental Research Letters 14 074027

Slemmons KE, Medford A, Hall BL, et al. Changes in glacial meltwater alter algal communities in lakes of Scoresby Sund, Renland, East Greenland throughout the Holocene: Abrupt reorganizations began 1000 years before present. The Holocene. 2017;27(7):929-940. 

Varin T, Lovejoy C, Jungblut AD, Vincent WF, Corbeil J (2012) Metagenomic analysis of stress genes in microbial mat communities from Antarctica and the High Arctic. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 78 (2):549 - 559. 

Apply for this project

The ENVISION studentship starts in October 2021 and is funded by NERC.

Apply through the University of Nottingham website

Application deadline - 12pm 8 January 2021

Any questions?

University of Nottingham

Main supervisor: Prof. Suzanne McGowan


UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Dr Daniel Read

The Natural History Museum

Dr Anne Jungblut

Funded by