Tuesday , July 27 2021

Report: Evidence of life found in deep lake below Antarctic ice

Scientists have discovered the bodies of tardives, algae, diatoms and small crustaceans in a body of water buried beneath a kilometer of Antarctic ice, according to a report by Nature.

The results come from the SALSA (Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access) project, which had earlier announced that it would explore the water, called Lake Mercer, with a 60 cm wide drill bit. The discovery marks the first results of this project, which seeks to understand these strange and watery environments.

The carcasses originated from 10,000 or 120,000 years ago during the warm-up periods, after which the ice smothered the lake again, according to Nature. It is not clear how life, particularly the microscopic tardigrade and a certain fungus, got there. But it is believed that they subsisted of bacteria in the water.

This was the third time scientists have explored an Antarctic subglacial lake, and the first time scientists have accessed Lake Mercer, having only operated with radar before, according to Nature report. Researchers have discovered the lake for more than a decade. It's 160km2 in area and about 800 km from the South Pole.

Given the location of Lake Mercer under the ice, it is unlikely that it could have supported a colony due to lack of sunlight, reports Nature. Maybe enough sunlight could penetrate a lake covered with less ice to support some kind of microbial colony.

SALSA project leader John Priscu noted that his team was careful to discard sources of contamination and hired an outside expert to check what they had seen. The expert confirmed that the organisms appeared to have died thousands of years ago and were similar to those found in some of the free regions of the Antarctic glacier.

It pays to remain skeptical, however; there is no expert-reviewed article to back up the claims yet.

But this is exciting for reasons other than just the strangeness of finding life in Antarctica. Astronomers have found evidence of ice-covered water on Jupiter's moon Europa and the depths of the Mars polar caps. Finding life in the strangest places on Earth gives us hope that there may be life in analogues on other planets.

The team will now try to date the materials, sequence their DNA and analyze samples from other lakes studied by the SALSA mission to tell the full story.

We'll keep you updated on this story as it unfolds and hope to see the published research.

[via Nature]

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