Life thrives in salty Antarctic lake sealed off for 2,800 years

By David Self Newlin | Posted - Nov 27th, 2012 @ 11:06am



SALT LAKE CITY — As the indomitable Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park would have stutteringly said, ""Life, uh, uh, uh, finds a way."

Even in the nightmarishly cold pit that is Antarctica's underground Lake Vida, scientists have been studying a complex and diverse ecosystem in an environment without oxygen, light, nutrients and salty enough to brine your Christmas turkey. At 20 percent salinity, lake stays liquid even at 13 degrees below freezing.

Nathaniel Ostrom co-authored a paper describing the bacteria-dominated ecosystem. It pushes the limits of where we can expect to see life.

"The observation of microbes surviving and growing in a variety of icy ecosystems on Earth has expanded our understanding of how life pervades, functions and persists under challenging conditions," the study says.

Scientists have known this lake contained some kind of life since 2002 when frozen bacteria were discovered. They thrived after being thawed and reanimated.

However, this time the bacteria they have discovered are still active even in the unimaginable conditions of the underground lake. Not only that, the lake has been cut off from the outside world by a thick sheet of ice for at least several thousand years.

A scanning electron micrograph of a bacterium found in the the lake.

Life in Lake Vida doesn't have access to substantial sources of energy. Scientists think that the bacteria may rely on elemental hydrogen and methane produced by reactions between the brine and the sediment of the lake to provide the metabolic energy required for life.

These factors make it an ideal place to study both the origin of life and its limits, as well as the possibility of life on other worlds. It's more like an alien world than Earth in many ways.

"It's an extreme environment - the thickest lake ice on the planet, and the coldest, most stable cryo-environment on Earth," Ostrom said. "The discovery of this ecosystem gives us insight into other isolated, frozen environments on Earth, but it also gives us a potential model for life on other icy planets that harbor saline deposits and subsurface oceans, such as Jupiter's moon Europa."

The paper appears in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists will be drilling into another underground lake in Antarctica later this year. It's called Lake Ellsworth, located roughly three kilometers below the surface.

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