Melting Ice Releases Ancient Microbes

Living cells escaping from Antarctic glaciers could speed global warming and affect marine life.

By | April 19, 2012

Collapse of Antarctic ice shelvesMODIS, NASA's Earth Observatory

Collapse of Antarctic ice shelvesMODIS, NASA'S EARTH OBSERVATORY

As climate change defrosts the Earth’s poles, masses of ancient microbes—some that were captured in ice over 750,000 years ago—are emerging from deep-freeze in the Antarctic, according to a feature report from Scientific American.

The melting Antarctic ice sheets, once thought to be barren, are teeming with microscopic cells and liberate living bacteria as they melt, according to Montana State University professor John Priscu, who has grown the ancient bacteria in his lab. "There's a lot of history in that ice sheet," Priscu told Scientific American. "It's a way of recycling genomes. You put something on the surface of the ice and a million years later it comes back out."

The fact that the cells are still alive is a big deal, said Louisiana State University microbiologist Brent Christner, because researchers don't understand how an organism can "sit for 750,000 years in some state of suspended animation like when Han Solo was put in carbonite."

As they are released from the glaciers, the microbes could have numerous effects on the environment: the cells could become decaying masses of organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming; and microorganisms added to the ocean could challenge or change marine life.

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Avatar of: Dorris Journeay

Dorris Journeay

Posts: 2

April 23, 2012

Hmmm, could be pathogenic to animals like krill, which could in turn be pathogenic to anything, like whales, that feed on it.  In addition to human-caused pollution and overfishing, this could be real trouble for all life in the oceans, and for all life period.  I don't think many people really understand how much life on land depends on what's going on in the oceans.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 23, 2012

Hmmm, could be pathogenic to animals like krill, which could in turn be pathogenic to anything, like whales, that feed on it.  In addition to human-caused pollution and overfishing, this could be real trouble for all life in the oceans, and for all life period.  I don't think many people really understand how much life on land depends on what's going on in the oceans.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 25, 2012

Never use the elitist phrase, "I don't think many (or most) people really understand ...". It's arrogant and insulting. 

Avatar of: rmstx

rmstx

Posts: 1

April 25, 2012

Never use the elitist phrase, "I don't think many (or most) people really understand ...". It's arrogant and insulting. 

Avatar of: Dorris Journeay

Dorris Journeay

Posts: 2

April 30, 2012

How is that elitist?  Does everyone know all about the ocean then?  I don't.  I include myself in that statement.  I don't know how this is going to impact anything, and according to the article, neither does anyone else.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 30, 2012

How is that elitist?  Does everyone know all about the ocean then?  I don't.  I include myself in that statement.  I don't know how this is going to impact anything, and according to the article, neither does anyone else.

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