‘Life in Ancient Ice’ by John D. Castello & Scott O. Rogers (eds)

Posted on Mar 27, 2014 in Book reviews | 0 comments

k8004There is a surprisingly high biodiversity within seemingly inaccessible and inhospitable icy habitats on Earth. This book explains about this icy life in the context of its possible delivery, the specific environmental characteristics of each habitat, the methods of scientific study and exploration of these environments, recommended methods to prevent contamination, questions still to answer, and the possible consequences of the re-animation and re-introduction of supposed long extinct biota into the Homo sapien-dominated regions of the world.

Even though the majority of the book is split into chapters that are very specific to one area of research the book as a whole gives a good overview of the types of icy habitats on Earth, the range of geographic locations of sites of interest, the type of species of microbes found, the ratios of different species within assemblages in different icy habitats, the range of techniques to study microbes in-situ or cultured, and the range of life stages of microbes (e.g. spore, cyst, or vegetative).

I would recommend this book for any astrobiologists interested in the possibility of life living within icy habitats on other planets or moons; because in order to find exobiological communities in icy habitats on other worlds we need to first familiarise ourselves with our own icy communities – their coping mechanisms, ecology, range of habitats, and methods of studying these microbes.

This book has all the basic information needed for those early-career researchers that are considering to work on psychrophiles in order to contribute to the field of astrobiology – it has a good overview of techniques, contamination issues and how to overcome these, many chapters detailing information about most areas of research and what has been done, and most importantly it includes the current questions that need to be answered – in my opinion the most important for astrobiology is the need for more work on deducing metabolic activity in-situ within solid ice.

However, one big issue that was not well addressed in the book was that of coping mechanisms for microbes living in the icy habitats (rather than forming spores or cysts). There was only a paragraph or so dedicated to the addition of polyunsaturated fatty acids into the cell membrane in order to keep the membranes fluid, but nothing on the use of proteins, etc. This is not too surprising as there is not a great deal of information on the physiology of psychrophiles, especially when this book was being written in 2004/5. However, I feel a chapter on this subject would have made this book more appealing to astrobiologists. At the very least it should have been included in the list of focus areas for future research. Due to the lack of extensive comment on this area and its exclusion in the focus areas for future research I would say that this book is missing a vital element in order to be considered a ‘The biological guide to life in ice’, rather I would call it a ‘Guide to the ecology of life in ice’.

In general it is a well-rounded book, full of interesting formation and given in an easy to read manner that is good for those who are just starting in this area of research. For those already studying icy microbes this book might seem a little too basic to be of use, however, certain chapters might still be of interest. For example, ‘Chapter 2: Recommendations for Elimination of Contaminants and Authentication of Isolates in Ancient Ice Cores’ shows the results of comparing different decontamination techniques and clearly indicates the most effective method, which should probably be the standard and utilised by all those working on ice cores.I would also recommend chapters in this book focusing on the Antarctic for those wanting to join in the exhilarating debates that are anticipated when the findings of the direct sampling of Lake Vostok by the Russian Antarctic expedition during this season’s expedition are released.

Reviewed by:  Lucy Norman, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London

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