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Summary

Cold, water-saturated soils play important biogeochemical roles, yet almost nothing is known about the identity and habitat of microbes active under such conditions. We investigated the year-round microenvironment of an alpine tundra wet meadow soil in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, focusing on the biogeochemistry and microbial diversity of spring snowmelt – a dynamic time for alpine ecosystems. In situ measurements revealed spring and autumn periods of long-term temperature stability near 0°C, and that deeper soil (30 cm) was more stable than surface soil, with more moderate summers and winters, and longer isothermal phases. The soil was saturated and water availability was limited by freezing rather than drying. Analyses of bioavailable redox species showed a shift from Mn reduction to net Fe reduction at 2–3 cm depth, elevated SO42– and decreased soluble Zn at spring snowmelt. Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism profiles detected a correlated shift in bacterial community composition at the surface to subsurface transition. Bacterial and archaeal small-subunit rRNA genes were amplified from saturated spring soil DNA pooled along a depth profile. The most remarkable feature of these subsurface-biased libraries was the high relative abundance of novel, uncultivated Chloroflexi-related sequences comprising the third largest bacterial division sampled, and representing seven new Chloroflexi subdivisions, thereby dramatically expanding the known diversity of this bacterial division. We suggest that these novel Chloroflexi are active at near −0°C temperatures, under likely anoxic conditions, and utilize geochemical inputs such as sulfide from upslope weathering.