A team of researchers have reportedly discovered an extreme form of life living far under the Antarctic ice sheet.
The team notes that the discovery could provide additional clues as to how life may have formed and existed on neighboring planets in the solar system. The underground lake, which researchers have examined for over a decade, is locked under 100 feet of solid ice and has effectively been sealed off for upwards of 3,000 years.
Speaking Tuesday, researchers said the discovery would better the scientific community’s understanding of how life began and its ability to adapt to harsh conditions.
“This study expands our knowledge of known habitats for life on Earth,” said Montana State University professor John Priscu, a co-author of the study. “We are just beginning to unravel the lost world beneath our planet’s ice sheets, and the survival strategies discovered in Lake Vida provide us with a unique window into the sub-ice cryosphere.”
“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” added Dr. Alison Murray, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher for the past 17 years, who has participated in 14 expeditions to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”
Researchers drilled out cores of ice, using sanitary procedures and equipment. They collected samples of brine within the ice and assessed its chemical qualities and potential for sustaining life. They discovered that the brine is oxygen-free, slightly acidic, and contains high levels of organic carbon, molecular hydrogen, and both oxidized and reduced compounds. The discovery left scientists pondering how the microscopic organism derived energy from their surrounding environment.
“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” said Christian Fritsen, a systems microbial ecologist and Research Professor in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences.
The discovery was welcomed by the astronomy community. Astronomers say further research could yield amazing results that could then be applied to missions to Mars and other solar systems bodies thought to be teeming with microscopic life.
“Any Martian water bodies that did form would have gone through this Vida stage before freezing solid, entombing the evidence of the past ecosystem,” said Dr. Peter Doran, of the University of Illinois in Chicago, who led the study.
The study was published Monday, November 26, in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).