The subzero microbiome: Microbial activity in frozen and thawing soils

Mrinalini P. Nikrad, Lee J. Kerkhof, Max M. Häggblom

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Most of the Earth's biosphere is characterized by low temperatures (<5C) and cold-adapted microorganisms are widespread. These psychrophiles have evolved a complex range of adaptations of all cellular constituents to counteract the potentially deleterious effects of low kinetic energy environments and the freezing of water. Microbial life continues into the subzero temperature range, and this activity contributes to carbon and nitrogen flux in and out of ecosystems, ultimately affecting global processes. Microbial responses to climate warming and, in particular, thawing of frozen soils are not yet well understood, although the threat of microbial contribution to positive feedback of carbon flux is substantial. To date, several studies have examined microbial community dynamics in frozen soils and permafrost due to changing environmental conditions, and some have undertaken the complicated task of characterizing microbial functional groups and how their activity changes with changing conditions, either in situ or by isolating and characterizing macromolecules. With increasing temperature and wetter conditions microbial activity of key microbes and subsequent efflux of greenhouse gases also increase. In this review, we aim to provide an overview of microbial activity in seasonally frozen soils and permafrost. With a more detailed understanding of the microbiological activities in these vulnerable soil ecosystems, we can begin to predict and model future expectations for carbon release and climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalFEMS microbiology ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


  • Climate change
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Permafrost
  • Psychrophiles
  • Subzero activity
  • Tundra


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