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posted on 15.02.2019, 14:55 by Sam Lambrechts, Anne Willems, Guillaume Tahon

Although Antarctica was once believed to be a sterile environment, it is now clear that the microbial communities inhabiting the Antarctic continent are surprisingly diverse. Until the beginning of the new millennium, little was known about the most abundant inhabitants of the continent: prokaryotes. From then on, however, the rising use of deep sequencing techniques has led to a better understanding of the Antarctic prokaryote diversity and provided insights in the composition of prokaryotic communities in different Antarctic environments. Although these cultivation-independent approaches can produce millions of sequences, linking these data to organisms is hindered by several problems. The largest difficulty is the lack of biological information on large parts of the microbial tree of life, arising from the fact that most microbial diversity on Earth has never been characterized in laboratory cultures. These unknown prokaryotes, also known as microbial dark matter, have been dominantly detected in all major environments on our planet. Laboratory cultures provide access to the complete genome and the means to experimentally verify genomic predictions and metabolic functions and to provide evidence of horizontal gene transfer. Without such well-documented reference data, microbial dark matter will remain a major blind spot in deep sequencing studies. Here, we review our current understanding of prokaryotic communities in Antarctic ice-free soils based on cultivation-dependent and cultivation-independent approaches. We discuss advantages and disadvantages of both approaches and how these strategies may be combined synergistically to strengthen each other and allow a more profound understanding of prokaryotic life on the frozen continent.

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