Polar glaciers are inhabited by numerous microorganisms including representatives of bacteria, archaea, microeukaryotes, and viruses. Low temperature is a main factor when considering polar glaciers as extreme environments. However, desiccation, low nutrients availability, ultraviolet irradiation, and photoreactive chemistry do also significantly influence their challenging life. Glaciers are highly selective and confined habitats, which make them favorable environments for adaptation and speciation. Depending on the glacier area studied, microorganisms establish a vertical food chain, from the surface photosynthesizers in upper illuminated layers to chemoautotrophs and heterotrophs confined to the inner part. These regions are rich not only in biodiversity but also in new mechanisms of adaptation to the environment, since selection acts with a particular intensity. Glaciers are retreating in many areas of the world due to global warming. When glaciers have ultimately withdrawn, microorganisms play a main role, carrying out key processes in the development of soil and facilitating plant colonization. These features make them unique and interesting for the study and protection of the biological heritage. Metagenomics have allowed a deeper understanding of microbial ecology and function of polar glacier microbial communities. In this review, we present a complete analysis of the microbial diversity in these ecosystems and include a thorough overview of the metabolic potentials and biogeochemical cycles in polar glacier habitats.
Part of the book: Metagenomics