Buried Antarctic Lake Home to Rock-Eating Microbes


Antarctica is one of the most barren locations on the planet, and still “life finds a way”

New research published in today’s issue of scientific journal Nature reveals that a large population of diverse rock-eating bacteria lives in a freshwater lake buried beneath the Antarctic ice. This data confirms preliminary studies conducted 20 years ago that identified microbes in refrozen water samples retrieved from Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial Antarctic lake.

The study was conducted by biologist Brent Christner and colleagues from Louisiana State University. The team analyzed samples retrieved from another subglacial lake, known as Lake Whillans, which lies beneath half a mile (roughly 805 meters) of ice West Antarctica. Scientists discovered at least 3,931 microbial species or groups of species in their samples of lake water, and many of those microorganisms use inorganic compounds as an energy source.

“People weren’t really thinking about ecosystems underneath the ice. The conventional wisdom was that they don’t exist, it’s a place that’s too extreme for this kind of thing,” Christner said in an interview.

Due to the low amount of surface melt, it is unlikely that the lake was exposed to outside water that managed to travel through the thick layer of ice to reach it. Scientists think the water instead comes from geothermal heating at the base of the lake as well as through frictional melting during ice flows. Due to their environment, these microorganisms likely survive on energy and nutrients from melting ice, crushed rock, sediment, and recycling of materials from dead micro-organisms.

This find not only reiterates how life can thrive in extreme conditions, but also helps support the idea that similar species could have- or might still be living on Mars. “Conditions are right (on Mars) for there to be liquid water at the bed. The right types of rocks are present which contain reduced (compounds) and if there are oxidizing agents present, then microbes can make a living shuttling electrons between reduced compounds and oxidized compounds,” said glaciologist Martyn Tranter from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

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Source: Discovery News

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