ALBERTO BEHAR, JPL/ASUUS-based researchers this week (February 5) announced the discovery of bacteria in samples collected from the Whillans Ice Stream, a lake buried beneath 800 meters of ice at the edge of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. If preliminary reports hold up, it is the first confirmation of microbial life in a deeply buried subglacial lake—an unknown ecosystem that has probably been isolated from the surface for millions of years.
Examining water and sediment samples brought up last month, the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) team observed cells under the microscope that were alive and metabolizing energy. “It transforms the way we view the Antarctic continent,” team leader John Priscu of Montana State University, told The New York Times, speaking from Antarctica’s US-owned McMurdo research station.
It remains unclear how the bacteria derive energy from an environment most likely deprived of oxygen and nutrients, and in permanent darkness. One theory is that they could take energy from minerals in surrounding rocks. But Priscu added that more work, including DNA analyses, is needed to characterize the identities and lifestyles of the bacteria. “Our stateside DNA sequence work will tell us who they are,” he told the NYT, “and, together with other experiments, tell us how they make a living.”
Meanwhile, intrepid research teams from Britain and Russia have also been searching for traces of life in several other Antarctic subglacial lakes. In December last year, a British team was forced to abandon efforts to access Lake Ellsworth. But earlier this year, Russian researchers recovered a core of frozen water from Lake Vostock, by far the largest of the Antarctic lakes, which lies hidden below almost 4,000 meters of ice. The Russians are yet to report any evidence of life in their samples.