Ancient Antarctic lake said to be reached: samples coming this year

Schematic of subglacial lake in Antarctica, image courtesy RT, click for more info

Russian researchers working feverishly at the height of Antarctica’s brief summer say they have successfully pierced the ancient vault of a sub-glacial lake sealed under ice for millions of years. But it’ll be awhile before we know the answer to the big question, can microbial life of some kind still exist in the alien environment of Lake Vostok?

NYT) — Clean samples of the water from Lake Vostok, named after the scientific research station located on the ice sheet above it, will not be taken until the next Antarctic summer, in December 2012, officials said, as the initial water released from the lake was contaminated by drilling fluid. Scientists believe the lake could contain a wide variety of evolutionary secrets, including evidence of previously unknown, prehistoric life forms.

There are reports the lake water contains enormous amounts of oxygen.

(RT) — According to our research, the quantity of oxygen there exceeds that on other parts of our planet by 10 to 20 times. Any life forms that we find are likely to be unique on Earth,” says Sergey Bulat, the Chief Scientist of Russia’s Antarctic Expedition to Russian Reporter magazine. But there is one place not on Earth that has similar conditions – Europa, the mysterious satellite of Jupiter. “The discovery of microorganisms in Lake Vostok may mean that, perhaps, the first meeting with extra-terrestrial life could happen on Europa,” said Dr Vladimir Kotlyakov, Director of the Geography Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

A lot depends on how and when the lake formed, and on what impurities are or could be circulated through it now. If the lake formed before Antarctica froze, about 10 — 20 million years, then there would have been far greater biological diversity present in the lake for evolution to work on. Even if psychryophile microbes did develop, there would have to be some constant or renewing energy source in the form of chemical energy for them to survive, and in a smallish isolated lake that would mean compounds circulating in from outside or welling up from below like they do in enigmatic cold seeps or black smoker biological communities scattered across the bottom of the world’s great oceans.

What would ‘Vostokian’ microbes live on? That’s a good question, there are probably no hydrothermal vents or seeps of hydrogen compounds going into the lake. But there could be slow dissolution, or substances stirred up by the slow movement of glaciers overhead grinding into nearby bedrock and salting the lake with rocky dust and even a small amount of frozen organic soil. That would be thin fare. But life is tenacious and innovative, these hypothetical microbes have had plenty of time to adapt in the quiet inky blackness tucked away at the icy bottom of the world. Dang, we’ll have to wait almost a year to find out!


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