Scientists have officially confirmed that life exists in an icy lake about half a mile beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. The discovery itself isn’t much of a surprise. But, the official confirmation was a long time coming.
The results of the discovery were published today in the journal Nature. Time and money were most responsible for the discovery. The team, led by members of the US WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) project, found thousands of different types of microorganisms in Lake Whillans.
The discovery proves life can exist in extreme conditions, and raises hopes of discovering some kind of life outside of Earth one day. From superheated water at the bottom of the ocean to the dark, icy waters underneath Antarctica. As Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.
This isn’t the first time life in subglacial lakes has been in the news. A Russian team acquired samples from a different lake, but today’s results are impressive because of the ultra-clean drilling methods used. This means there are few, if any, contaminants in the samples.
“I wasn’t surprised to find life under there, but I was surprised how much life there was, and how they made a living,” John Priscu, lead scientist on the project told the LA Times. “They are essentially eating the Earth.”
That’s the biggest takeaway here. Life can thrive in persistent cold environments with no light energy.
What was the total haul? The research team found 3,931 microbial species. These microorganisms get their energy from ammonium, nitrate and other compounds.
The team is already making plans for another expedition to Lake Whillans early next year. They’ll be drilling in a different location this time to see if they can find more or different organisms.
Scientific American has republished a great article from Nature Magazine talking about the discovery.
Above image: Aerial view of Lake Whillans. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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