Life found below Antarctica’s ice sheet

Confirmed: 800 meters beneath Antarctic ice sheet, subglacial lake holds viable microbial ecosystems

Cutting-edge technology and science of the NSF-funded WISSARD project make discovery possible

In a finding that has implications for life in other extreme environments, both on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system, researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) this week published a paper confirming that the waters and sediments of a lake that lies 800 meters (2,600 feet) beneath the surface of the West Antarctic ice sheet support “viable microbial ecosystems.”

Given that more than 400 subglacial lakes and numerous rivers and streams are thought to exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, such ecosystems may be widespread and may influence the chemical and biological composition of the Southern Ocean, the vast and biologically productive sea that encircles the continent.

According to Brent C. Christner, the paper’s lead author and a researcher with the NSF-funded Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, “Hidden beneath a half-mile of ice in Antarctica is an unexplored part of our biosphere. WISSARD has provided a glimpse of the nature of microbial life that may lurk under more than 5 million square miles of ice sheet.”

Analysis of the samples taken from subglacial Lake Whillans, the researchers indicate, show that the water contains a diverse microbial community, many members of which can mine rocks for energy and use carbon dioxide as their source of carbon.

Added John Priscu, a WISSARD scientist at Montana State University, Bozeman and a co-author on the paper,  the Antarctic subglacial environment is our planet’s largest wetland, one dominated completely by microorganisms.

The WISSARD findings are published in the Aug. 21 issue of the journal Nature by scientists and students affiliated with WISSARD, which is a collaboration involving researchers at numerous institutions across the United States.

Christner is a professor of biology at Louisiana State University (LSU). Other co-authors on the paper include students and researchers from LSU; the University of Venice in Italy; New York University; the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; St. Olaf College in Minnesota; the University of Tennessee; and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom.

NSF, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program through its Division of Polar Programs, provided more than $10 million in grants as part of NSF’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 portfolio to support the WISSARD science and development of related technologies.

NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the private Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also provided support for the project.

The WISSARD team made scientific and engineering history in late January of 2013 when they used clean hot-water drilling technology to access subglacial Lake Whillans. This permitted the retrieval of pristine water and sediment samples that had been isolated from direct contact with the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

The interdisciplinary WISSARD research team included groups of experts in the following areas of science: life in icy environments, led by Priscu; glacial geology, led by Ross Powell, of Northern Illinois University; and glacial hydrology, led by Slawek Tulaczyk, of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Definitive evidence of life in subglacial lakes

The realization that a vast aquatic system of rivers and lakes exists beneath the ice in Antarctica has spurred investigations to examine the effect on ice-sheet stability and the habitability of environments at the bed. The latest WISSARD announcement is the first to provide definitive evidence that a functional microbial ecosystem exists beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, confirming more than a decade of speculation about life in this environment.

Using various methods, including airborne radar surveys, scientists have built a knowledge base about Antarctica’s subglacial hydrological system over the past 40 years. The largest of the subglacial lakes, subglacial Lake Vostok in East Antarctica, is one of the largest lakes on our planet in terms of volume and depth and has been isolated beneath the ice sheet for more than 10 million years.

Samples of microbes from Lake Vostok have been collected indirectly by examining ice collected above the liquid part of the Lake- ice that refroze–accreted–on the bottom of the ice sheet.

These samples, which were described in 1999 by Priscu, the chief scientist of the WISSARD project, and David Karl of the University of Hawaii, presented the first evidence for life beneath the huge Antarctic ice sheet.

However, the drilling techniques used to retrieve the Vostok samples and the low amount of microbial biomass present in the samples had called into question previous studies that concluded the lake supports a living ecosystem.

The WISSARD team drilled into subglacial Lake Whillans using a clean hot-water drill and incorporated rigorous measures to avoid the introduction of foreign material into the lake.

The approach to drilling was guided by recommendations in the 2007 National Research Council-sponsored report, “Exploration of Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments: Environmental and Scientific Stewardship,” aimed to protect these unique environments from contamination.

A team of engineers and technicians directed by Frank Rack of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, designed and fabricated the specialized hot-water drill that was fitted with a filtration and germicidal UV system to prevent contamination of the subglacial environment and to recover clean samples for microbial analyses. In addition, the numerous customized scientific samplers and instruments used for this project were also carefully cleaned before being lowered into the borehole through the ice and into the lake.

A major concern that drove the clean-drilling techniques and protocols is that it is still unclear how interconnected the subglacial aquatic system is. Researchers did not want to risk contaminating the entire system through their sampling of one body of water.

The newly published paper also raises a separate issue of the connectivity of Lake Whillans to the wider global ecosystem, noting that the lake is part of network of three major reservoirs beneath the Whillans Ice Stream that regulate the transportation of water to a subglacial estuary–an area where fresh and salt water mix–which links the subglacial aquatic system to the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Given the prevalence of subglacial water in Antarctica,” the researchers write, “our data…lead us to contend that aquatic microbial systems are common features of the subsurface environment that exists beneath the … Antarctic ice sheet.”

-NSF-

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63 thoughts on “Life found below Antarctica’s ice sheet

  1. I wonder whether the microbial life might be more complex than assumed. Microbes often form macroscopic structures, biological films, even mobile structures such as slime molds. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slime_mold . In an eco-system dominated by microbes, co-operation and interaction between microbes might follow patterns very strange to our normal experience.

  2. mine rocks for energy and use carbon dioxide as their source of carbon
    = = = = = = =

    I read a more simplified version in the DailyMail a few days ago, but with the same simple story about the source of energy: “the microbes eat rocks.”
    But from what compounds within the rock do they get their energy? What kind of rock is it?
    Does “rock” power all the autotrophs in the system?
    Is there an abundant source of energy available from rocks that we have somehow overlooked?

  3. I presume that the microbes gain energy by using exothermic chemical reactions. This can provide a lot of heat.

  4. On a related theme, search for biota in the Russian superdeep drill hole (to 12.2 km) at Kola, done a while back now.
    Biota found at quite deep locations underground.
    Likewise around black smokers in ocean trenches. Life abounds.
    One should anticipate such biota to be present, rather than absent, in remote locations.
    That is a lesson from history.

  5. M Courtney says:
    August 22, 2014 at 1:59 am
    ‘According to the Telegraph they have found life in the even more inhospitable realm of outer space.’

    A possible source for this life that they give is sea spray splashed onto boosters prior to launch. A possibly more likely source is the sample of rock taken from the cliffs of Beer in East Devon which was fixed to the outside of the space station in order to test the resilience of extremophiles to life in space.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11039206

  6. Well if life can live on the outside of the space statin have we contaminated Mars with our rovers?
    And are about to launch a biological weapon on that poor defenceless comet we just harpooned?

    I still doubt this news story.

  7. “implications for life in other extreme environments, both on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system”

    It is interesting. But “life . . . elsewhere in the solar system” assumes facts not in evidence.

    “such ecosystems may be widespread and may influence the chemical and biological composition of the Southern Ocean, the vast and biologically productive sea that encircles the continent.”

    More hype. From unknown to influential in one fell swoop.

    These are grant seeking statements, not science.

  8. johnmarshall says:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:01 am
    I presume that the microbes gain energy by using exothermic chemical reactions. This can provide a lot of heat.
    =============
    Exothermic food is the only way to live. But what are the redox reactions in metabolism? What compounds do they burn, exactly? Rock oil? (Petra+Oleum?)

  9. Just because life is found in the cooling towers of nuclear reactors or an orbiting platform does not mean that it originated in such hostile environments.
    It must have developed in a benign environment then spread to a more hostile one.
    It is for that reason that I am skeptical that a planet such as Mars could ever develop life, as it is always bombarded with sterilizing radiation and is very cold.Some of the surface rocks are the oxides of calcium,not a good place for the average eukaryotic cell.
    Whenever life is found to have colonised some space on Earth where we have not looked before,we are always told this means it could exist in some other place where we have not looked.
    We always need more funds to look at Titan, and send a probe there, or a comet to see if there are viruses aboard, or ,of course Mars, we should really send some happy people interested in terraforming on a one way trip.
    All these places have one thing in common.
    There is no sign of a benign environment for life to develop and spread to the hostile cold waterless places we actually see.

  10. Bloke down the pub says:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:15 am

    M Courtney says:
    August 22, 2014 at 1:59 am
    ‘According to the Telegraph they have found life in the even more inhospitable realm of outer space.’

    A possible source for this life that they give is sea spray splashed onto boosters prior to launch. A possibly more likely source is the sample of rock taken from the cliffs of Beer in East Devon which was fixed to the outside of the space station in order to test the resilience of extremophiles to life in space.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11039206

    Maybe, but there’s one little catch. From the spacedaily article (much better than the Telegraphs’s), the plankton was found on the Russian side – there’s no plankton at Baikonur:

    The results of the recent experiments prove that that some organisms are capable of living on the outer surface of the International Space Station (ISS), Vladimir Solovyev, head of the Russian segment of the ISS, has revealed.

    Some studies suggest that these organisms may even develop in the hostile conditions of spaceflight, which include vacuum, low temperatures, radiation and others, he added.

    “[Plankton in] such phases of development is found on the surface of the ocean. It isn’t characteristic to Baikonur,”he explained, referring to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan from where crew and cargo deliveries to ISS are launched. [Well, not quite true these days. minor Russian propaganda, but let's let NASA and Congress defend themselves.]

    “It turns out that there are some rising air currents, which settle on the surface of the station,” Solovyev added. [I move the experiment be replicated and other old LEO satellites be visited and tested. Where's Skylab when you need it?]

    The former cosmonaut, who spent nearly a year in orbit back in the 1980s, said that outer surface of ISS is “heavily contaminated” by the waste products from engines of the arriving spacecraft, atmospheric discharges from the station during spacewalks by the crew and other factors.

  11. Why anyone finds this in the least bit surprising is a complete mystery to me.
    The idea of somewhere on the surface of the planet that is ‘sterile’…now that would be shocking.
    You guys should do more cleaning!

  12. Interesting but where’s the inevitable threat to said life by AGW? Maybe that will be part 2.

  13. Let me guess these microbes are endangered due to the imminent collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. Please give me 20 billion dollars to study this vital link in the food chain.

  14. Back in the day, one of my power plants ate some rocks. But it couldn’t digest them. Baaad case of indigestion!

  15. what does “viable microbial ecosystem” mean? It’s obviously been surviving for many thousands of years, so “viable” seems like one of those ecological feel-good throw-away terms…like “fragile”.

  16. I though methane was a fossil fuel?
    ============
    there you have it. Proof that dinosaurs once roamed the surface of Titan.

    The notion that earth’s methane supply is primarily a result of decay of plants and animals is very helpful if you are trying to promote scarcity of supply to drive up prices. No doubt you could find many scientists will to back you in return for funding.

    However, once you accept that methane is formed by the reduction of limestone and water in the presence of iron, at high pressure and temperature, an entirely different picture emerges. Especially given plate tectonics. Methane suddenly becomes plentiful, with large supplies within the earth and at the ocean floor.

    Which explanation best fits observations?

  17. Lewis P Buckingham says:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

    There is no sign of a benign environment for life to develop and spread to the hostile cold waterless places we actually see.
    __________________________________
    Europa. Liquid water (LOTS of it) + volcanism (energy) + organic molecules.

    Mars ain’t the only place in the Solar System.

  18. On the ISS plankton thread. [url=http://www.space.com/26888-sea-plankton-space-station-russian-claim.html]From Nasa:[/url

    NASA spokesman Dan Huot: “As far as we’re concerned, we haven’t heard any official reports from our Roscosmos colleagues that they’ve found sea plankton. The Russians did take samples from one of the windows on the Russian segment, and what they’re actually looking for is residues that can build up on the visually sensitive elements, like windows, as well as just the hull of the ship itself that will build up whenever they do thruster firings for things like re-boosts. That’s what they were taking samples for. I don’t know where all the sea plankton talk is coming from.”

  19. I don’t get the statement that the lake is “dominated completely by microorganisms”. If I took a water and sediment sample from any lake in the world I would conclude the same thing. They haven’t looked for anything larger. Every place on Earth is dominated completely by microorganisms, even my kitchen sink. So when do they drop a camera to look for what else might be there?

    I also don’t get the linkage to possible life on Titan. It isn’t as if life evolved in this lake ex nihilo. It was teeming with life before it froze over and life has adapted to the environment over the 10 million years.

  20. Bacterial communities in these anoxic, dark and very saline waters are documented in several studies. Not surprisingly, the deep water under thick ice cover can be warm and this is almost certainly caused by diverse microbes with exothermic energy processes like methanogenesis. Sulphate reducing microbes will produce sulphides etc. The water will be very saline, high in H2S and compositionally very stratified with different microbial communities favouring water depths which reflect their optimal environment.
    Note that lake Vostok is covered by several kilometres of ice for millions of years. The water is very deep and it is one of the world’s largest lakes. Clearly, the microbe communities in Vostok and many of the hundreds of ice covered lakes in Antarctica will be unusual and these will become a new frontier for scientific study.

  21. Clay Marley says:

    August 22, 2014 at 7:08 am

    I also don’t get the linkage to possible life on Titan.

    Well, the study shows that “viable microbial ecosystems” can exist in a “Titan-like” environment.

  22. M Courtney,
    Thanks for the NOAA link – very cool.
    You evidently see that there is a huge difference between the geochemical reducing conditions that produce hot/warm/cold seeps, and the mechanical condition that grinds rock under a mass of ice. Most of the metals we mine are in oxidized format, and must be reduced to the elemental form with a great deal of energy input. But elemental metals, from rock, is a reasonable hypothetical candidate, I suppose. It’s a vast improvement on “they eat rocks.”

  23. Khwarizmi says at August 22, 2014 at 7:48 am..
    Glad to help.
    I know it’s not a perfect fit but there aren’t any papers on these Antarctic bugs yet.
    I was just trying to find something close. Metal ion oxidation seems probable.

    It would be nice if it was abiotic oil but I guess we’ll have to keep hoping to see if that’s ever found.

  24. Ric Werme says:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:21 am

    Maybe, but there’s one little catch. From the spacedaily article (much better than the Telegraphs’s), the plankton was found on the Russian side – there’s no plankton at Baikonur:

    Well I did say there was a possibly more likely source.

  25. nargun says:
    August 22, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Be funny if they found the bug that wiped us all out down there
    _________________________________________________

    I’m just worried we might wake up some Shoggoths.

  26. Lewis P Buckingham says:
    “Just because life is found in the cooling towers of nuclear reactors or an orbiting platform does not mean that it originated in such hostile environments.”

    Just what is “hostile” in a cooling tower of a nuclear reactor? I should think a constantly warm
    and wet (and incidentally non-radioactive) environment is about as un-hostile as any bacterium might want.

  27. Of course there are also organisms living on the surface of the ice like algae and fungus. Kind of invalidates the utility of ice core samples as a record of historic atmospheric CO2 levels.

  28. DesertYote:

    At August 22, 2014 at 9:59 am you say

    Of course there are also organisms living on the surface of the ice like algae and fungus. Kind of invalidates the utility of ice core samples as a record of historic atmospheric CO2 levels.

    Yes, and “high” CO2 values are deleted from ice core data on the assumption that the “high” values are “contamination” by such organisms. Of course, one could also assume that such organisms scavenge CO2 with the result that all not-deleted CO2 values are too low. And one could assume …

    In short, yes, you are right.

    Richard

  29. Roy Spencer says:
    August 22, 2014 at 6:16 am

    what does “viable microbial ecosystem” mean? It’s obviously been surviving for many thousands of years, so “viable” seems like one of those ecological feel-good throw-away terms…like “fragile”.

    Probably means they’re tasty when curried, and very harvestable. How long before a GM version is created in the lab that can survive at room temperature so they can be converted to biofuel? Someone should check first though to see if these critters carry a strain of ebola or are a kind of intestinal parasite looking for a host.

  30. ohhh…”NSF”…the National Science Foundation. Dang, I only clicked on this link because I thought it was “NSFW”… :O

    rip

  31. Sooo what I have ask. Now that man has been on the ice for decade’s now, what about the resulting contaminates, body waste for one example, reaching these lakes from the surface.

  32. No biggie – you can find dumb, primitive life forms just about anywhere you look. I dare anyone to find any intelligent life in Columbus, Ohio.

    Football (real football – not what they call football everywhere else on this infinitely fine-tuned planet, including Antarctica – but Murica) ready to start. More primitive life everywhere, on the field, in the stands, in various vegetative states before TV screens (seemingly trapped there for long periods, just like heat in the deep ocean) . Why does anyone need to go all the way to Antarctica? Hard to understand.

  33. Re: Life outside the ISS. That’s awfully close to earth, with frequent chances for contamination from shuttles. What we need is to test those microbes on the moon. See how long they last out there.

  34. Well it is certainly interesting for future exploration of some of the more ‘earth like’ Moons. Europa for example.

    I do feel that we should send our probes to such places rather than the Planets. We know for sure that there is no life on Jupiter or Saturn (Mercury / Venus). There may be good information to be obtained from a Jupiter probe but none of it will concern life.

    Finding some self replicating chemical on one of Jupiter’s moons would be as bigger discovery as we have ever made. It would prove beyond doubt that, given the right environment, ‘life’ could be present pretty much everywhere in our known universe.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not talking about little men with big black eyes here just a chemical chain that can replicate on some scale. It might be ‘pants’ life in that it will never develop HD TV but it would surely be a huge discovery all the same.

  35. dbstealey says: August 22, 2014 at 1:35 am

    Very cool!

    Maybe we will find life on Titan some day. It has a large methane sea.

    Methane rain, Methane rain…. (apologies to the individual formally known as Prince).

    Funny that Titan is governed by methane but Earth is (allegedly) governed by (ppm) CO2 not (x%) H2O.

  36. Lewis P Buckingham says:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

    While moons of Saturn and Jupiter might be more likely to harbor life than Mars now, that was not always true in the past. It appears that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere and an ocean and was warmer than now. If life developed there in its first billion years, it could still be hiding out beneath the surface.

  37. “””””…..NSF, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program through its Division of Polar Programs, provided more than $10 million in grants as part of NSF’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 portfolio to support the WISSARD science and development of related technologies……”””””

    I thought this O’bama boondoggle law, was for shovel ready jobs.

    So just what bio-communities were in this lake, before they drilled into it, and contaminated it.

    Can I apply for one of those jobs, for putting those microbes to work, making clean green renewable energy out of rocks ??

    Aw forget it, we already get renewable energy from rocks; they call it “fracking”, or something like that.

  38. 3×2 says:
    August 22, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Life in the atmosphere of Venus cannot be ruled out. Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that it might exist there on the cloud tops.

  39. “””””…..Frodo the Eriadoran says:

    August 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    No biggie – you can find dumb, primitive life forms just about anywhere you look. I dare anyone to find any intelligent life in Columbus, Ohio.

    Football (real football – not what they call football everywhere else on this infinitely fine-tuned planet, including Antarctica – but Murica) ready to start. More primitive life everywhere, on the field, in the stands, in various vegetative states before TV screens (seemingly trapped there for long periods, just like heat in the deep ocean) . Why does anyone need to go all the way to Antarctica? Hard to understand……”””””

    Welll you are sadly mistaken, if you call THAT football. It is more properly called “Please don’t kick the ball !”

    Aussie rules is real football. Anybody is allowed to kick the football, and in any direction.

    As for that “Association Football”, I think it is officially named (used to be), those dummies can’t kick a football, to save their lives. Over the net, around the net, into the goal framing; anywhere but into that whacking great big net. What a joke; well it does tend to make basketball interesting.

  40. sturgishooper says:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    3×2 says:
    August 22, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Life in the atmosphere of Venus cannot be ruled out. Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that it might exist there on the cloud tops.

    But, were I a betting man, there will be no ‘life’ on Venus. While we live in an “anything is possible” world, realistically Venus is a no go zone for life as we understand it. Given the surface pressures and temperatures of Venus it is really difficult to think of any “Earth like” chemical reactions that might take place. Shit would just break apart on Venus, life could never get started let alone evolve.

  41. 3×2 says:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    sturgishooper says:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    3×2 says:
    August 22, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    But, were I a betting man, there will be no ‘life’ on Venus. While we live in an “anything is possible” world, realistically Venus is a no go zone for life as we understand it.

    ==================

    Why insist it be as we understand it?

  42. To me a story like this is Da are you really that stupid to think there would not be life there, There is bacteria that live in rocks miles below the surface. It a huge problem for oil drillers since that bacteria has a feast when the starch in the drilling mud is offered to them.

  43. What’s so fantastic is a DVD I think it is on YouTube too. Is colored corals in some parts, not that deep though. If there are thermal vents, like there are in other oceans, there is life around them, they use chemosynthesis as against photosynthesis. Most probably the first ocean life on earth developed the same way.

  44. A lot of effort went into preventing biological contamination of the lake.
    Was the pressure also kept constant?

  45. Are they sure they haven’t just stumbled upon a long-drop belonging to one of the Antarctic research stations?

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