“Death or the west coast of Greenland!”

From the UAF Cornerstone.

In the century since Fridtjof Nansen‘s audacious 1888 ski expedition there have been few scientific crossings of the Greenland ice cap. Of those, most have been mechanized treks or fly-overs and none have been focused on the microbial realm. Nansen famously arranged his expedition so that there was no turning back: “Our order was: Death or the west coast of Greenland.” Modern day explorers face much less risk when venturing into the frozen wilderness, but the draw of the unknown persists.

Eric Collins, assistant professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, will embark on an ambitious project this spring to ski from Greenland’s east coast to its west coast, traversing 335 miles (540 kilometers) across the 8,000-foot-high (2,500-meter-high) ice sheet. Collins will collect microbiological samples and acquire environmental knowledge along the way.

“One of the reasons I’m interested in going the slow route is to recreate a sense of being in the place. I feel like a lot of the science that we do now tends to be ‘fly in, get your samples, fly out,’ and for me there’s a dissatisfaction with that mode of operation, even though it’s driven by a lot of very practical factors,” said Collins, “When I can, I like to delve a little more deeply into the environment.”

The aim of the Greenland Ice Microbiome Project is to use cutting-edge technology to probe the diversity and functionality of cold-adapted microbes — the most diverse inhabitants of Greenland — from coast to coast. The project’s acronym, GrIMP, mirrors the French word “grimpe,” meaning “climbing.”

GrIMP’s unparalleled geographic extent and intensive depth of sequencing will identify rare organisms present in snow and ice and help identify the origin and distribution of microbes across Greenland. The research will provide a map of microbial diversity using modern molecular tools and enable future investigations of the interconnection and feedback between Greenland’s ice and its microbiota.

Collins will be the sole Alaskan participating but has formed national and international partnerships and will collaborate with other researchers from Fairbanks, Seattle, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Greenland to accomplish the research goals.

Close up of ice algae sampled in Barrow, Alaska May 2013. Photo courtesy of Eric Collins.
Close up of ice algae sampled in Barrow, Alaska May 2013. Photo courtesy of Eric Collins.

GrIMP’s primary goal is to provide the first comprehensive meta-bar coding survey of the microbiome of Greenland’s sea ice, glacial ice and snow. The term “microbiome” refers to the microbial diversity of an environment when resolved to extremely fine detail by the use of high-throughput DNA sequencing techniques. In this study, DNA will be extracted from bacteria, archaea and microbial eukaryotes, then a specific bar code region of the 16S or 18S ribosomal RNA gene will be amplified and sequenced on an Illumina MiSeq next-generation DNA sequencer to a depth of more than 100,000 sequences per sample. This level of detail helps to detect rarer organisms and is 1,000 times the capability of a decade ago.

Collins’ research is focused on gaining insights into the diversity and evolution of microbes in frozen environments, with potential applications ranging from arctic oil bioremediation to life on other planets.

Collins will be available in Fairbanks until March 7 and in Nuuk, Greenland, until March 29, after which he will be on the ice cap and reachable only by satellite phone until May 12. A public outreach event is planned for Ocean Sampling Day 2014, which will take place during the expedition segment in Daneborg, Greenland, on June 21.

Collins can be contacted at 907-474-6482, by email at recollins@alaska.edu, or on Twitter @rec3141.

Leg 1: March 10—29, 2014.

Nuuk, Greenland (64.175 N, 51.738 W).



Leg 2:  March 29—April 12, 2014

Kulusuk, Greenland (65.575 N, 37.183 W).



Leg 3: April 12—May 12, 2014

Kulusuk to Kangerlussuaq traverse (67.008 N, 50.689 W).



Leg 4: June 10—July 3, 2014

Daneborg, Greenland (74.3 N, 20.233 W).



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