Science

Retreating Arctic Glacier Leads To The Discovery Of Two New Species Of Fungi That Can Grow In Frozen Landscape

An international team of researchers has discovered two species of fungi entirely new to science in sediments at the front of a rapidly melting glacier on Ellesmere Island, located in Canada’s far north.

The two species are both specially adapted to grow in the extreme cold of their environment, where temperatures regularly hover below freezing and there is a distinct lack of vitamins. That's according to two related papers published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The researchers from Laval University, Canada, Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Tokyo, named one of the fungi Mrakia hoshinonis after Japanese scientist Tamotsu Hoshino, who has made significant contributions to our knowledge of fungi in the polar regions.

The second species was named Vishniacozyma ellesmerensis in reference to the island where it was discovered—the third largest in Canada and tenth largest in the world.

Retreating Arctic Glacier Leads To The Discovery Of Two New Species Of Fungi That Can Grow In Frozen Landscape

Two new species of fungi isolated from sediments and soil in the Canadian Arctic. (A) micrographic image of Vishniacozyma ellesmerensis (B) colonies of V. ellesmerensis (C) micrographic image of Mrakia hoshinonis (D) colonies of M. hoshinonis. NIPR

"The knowledge of fungi inhabiting the Arctic is still fragmentary. We set out to survey the fungal diversity in the Canadian High Arctic," Masaharu Tsuji, first author of both papers and a researcher at NIPR, said in a statement. "We found two new fungal species in the same investigation on Ellesmere Island."

Like in many regions around the globe, the Walker Glacier is retreating at a worrying rate. In fact, the scientists said that in 2016—when the fungi were collected—the glacier was melting two-and-a-half times faster than the average rate over the past half a century.

"Climate-related effects have been observed in this region over the last 20 years," Tsuji said. "Soon, some of the glaciers may completely melt and disappear."

It has been estimated that there could be anywhere between 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungi on Earth, according to a 2017 study published in the journal The Fungal Kingdom. However, only a small percentage of these are known to science.

Despite our relative ignorance, we do know that fungi play an incredibly important role in all manner of ecosystems due to their essential role as decomposers which recycle nutrients. Thus, if glaciers melt, fungi such as the newly discovered species may find their habitats irreversibly changed. And this could have disastrous consequences for the ecosystems that rely on them, according to the researchers.

In future, the team says that they plan to conduct further research in the polar regions to survey the state of fungal life in different areas.

"Eventually, we plan to compile all of our studies to provide an overview of terrestrial ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic regions,” Tsuji said.

The Walker Glacier on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic

The Walker Glacier on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic. Yukiko Tanabe (NIPR)