Total DNA (intracellular, iDNA and extracellular, eDNA) from ancient permafrost records the mixed genetic repository of the past and present microbial populations through geological time. Given the exceptional preservation of eDNA under perennial frozen conditions, typical metagenomic sequencing of total DNA precludes the discrimination between fossil and living microorganisms in ancient cryogenic environments. DNA repair protocols were combined with high throughput sequencing (HTS) of separate iDNA and eDNA fraction to reconstruct metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) from ancient microbial DNA entrapped in Siberian coastal permafrost.
Despite the severe DNA damage in ancient permafrost, the coupling of DNA repair and HTS resulted in a total of 52 MAGs from sediments across a chronosequence (26–120 kyr). These MAGs were compared with those derived from the same samples but without utilizing DNA repair protocols. The MAGs from the youngest stratum showed minimal DNA damage and thus likely originated from viable, active microbial species. Many MAGs from the older and deeper sediment appear related to past aerobic microbial populations that had died upon freezing. MAGs from anaerobic lineages, including
Our results indicated that coupling of DNA repair protocols with simultaneous sequencing of iDNA and eDNA fractions enabled the assembly of MAGs from past and living microorganisms in ancient permafrost. The genomic reconstruction from the past and extant microbial populations expanded our understanding about the microbial successions and biogeochemical alterations from the past paleoenvironment to the present-day frozen state. Furthermore, we provided genomic insights into long-term survival mechanisms of microorganisms under cryogenic conditions through geological time. The combined strategies in this study can be extrapolated to examine other ancient non-permafrost environments and constrain the search for past and extant extraterrestrial life in permafrost and ice deposits on Mars.