Antarctica's "Blood Falls" Shows How Aliens Might Live on Ice Worlds

By Eliza Strickland | April 16, 2009 5:42 pm

Blood FallsLife sure turns up in the darnedest places. The latest discovery comes from Blood Falls, a rusty red discolouration on the face of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica [that] occasionally gushes forth a transparent, briny, iron-rich liquid that quickly oxidizes and turns red, staining the ice below [Nature News].

The source of that water is an intensely salty lake trapped beneath 1,300 feet of ice, and a new study has now found that microbes have carved out a niche for themselves in that inhospitable environment, living on sulfur and iron compounds. The bacteria colony has been isolated there for about 1.5 million years, researchers say, ever since the glacier rolled over the lake and created a cold, dark, oxygen-poor ecosystem.

In the sub-glacial lake, the microbes have no chance of getting energy through photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes live off the minerals that were trapped in the lake with them, the researchers explain in the study, published in Science. It appears that energy is obtained when sulfur is cycled through different oxidation states by reacting it with iron…. The oxidized sulfur is then used to react with carbon compounds, powering the metabolism [Ars Technica].

Similar critters may have lived 600 to 800 million years ago during the harsh epoch known as “snowball Earth,” when glaciers reached into the tropics, explains study coauthor Ann Pearson. Back then, photosynthesis probably ground to a halt across the planet, and marine bacteria may have only managed to eke out a living in the same way as those living under Taylor Glacier, Pearson says. “Life in sea water, as we know it, could maintain reasonable continuity through an event like this” [New Scientist].

And if life can thrive in one of the toughest environments on earth, maybe it has found a way to take hold elsewhere as well, says lead researcher Jill Mikucki. “If it can survive below this glacier, why not below the ice cap on Mars and on Europa?” asks Mikucki [Nature News].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: E.T.’s Arctic Cousins looked at a similar phenomenon on the other side of the globe
80beats: Where Would Martian Life Hang Out? Under a Giant Volcano, Naturally
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80beats: Tiny Invertebrates Survive a Trip Through the Vacuum of Space
80beats: Arsenic-Eating Bacteria May Resemble Early Life on Primordial Earth

Image: Benjamin Urmston


  • shy

    Perhaps they should measure the methane emissions over the lake to compare them with the sources of methane in mars?

    If my idea gives someone the Nobel, please remember me when you obtain the prize. The economic prize, I mean :lol.

  • myra

    Selling Planet Earth in Exchange for a Utopia? What’s the Catch?

    Humans sold planet Earth for peace, but little did they know peace would come at such a high cost.

    A long time ago, Humanity sold planet Earth to a group called the Evers in order to gain peace and a virtual utopia for themselves and for future generations. However, the cost of this paradise turns out to be too much for some to deal with and the humans soon find themselves ruled cruelly by the very beings who offered them salvation and at one point given them so much hope.

    Humans that were originally treated with high regards, made to feels special, are now being treated as animals, some humiliated and shipped away to some unknown fate…each being told what they could or could not do, under the guise of it being in humanities best interest.

    With a feeling of dread, a small group declares war on the more advanced Evers in hopes of returning things to the way they should be…to the way they had been. John and his make-shift crew of humans and hybrids (half human/half Ever) must not only find a way to break free of the mistakes of the past and find out the disturbing secrets that the Evers have hidden away, but they must also deal with their own personal issues and learn to live, grow, and deal with each others’ emotional issues of love, regret and fear.

    Will man give up youth and perfect health to live in the past? And will John take the chance of restoring Earth to its former state even though there’s a good chance his life-threatening disease can return?

    Publisher’s Web site:

    About the Author:
    Myra Evans resides in Walterboro, South Carolina, a small town near Charleston. She is a C.N.A. for a large Veterans nursing home.

  • John Cassady

    Myra… Are you on medication? If you are, it’s not working. If you aren’t, please start.

  • Grant H

    “It appears that energy is obtained when sulfur is cycled through different oxidation states by reacting it with iron…. The oxidized sulfur is then used to react with carbon compounds, powering the metabolism”

    Wow, that’s so cool. Sometimes nature just really amazes me.

  • Grant H

    Hi John, I think Myra’s comment ended up under the wrong post. I think it was meant to go under “After a Firebombing, “Pro-Test” Rallies in Support of Animal Research” as a reply to my comment. So meds aren’t necessarily in order. 😉
    If I’m right Myra, would you mind popping your comment under the right post and I’ll reply to it there. Cheers.

  • D J

    Very strong precursor for the idea that there may yet be something happening on Mars……

    Stay tuned for more Martian Chronicles.

  • johnson

    I read these blogs to learn and be entertained, please sell your books somewhere else. Story sounds cool though, are the evers supposed to be catholics?

  • FILTHpig

    Myra, stop spamming your lame Sci Fi. My guess is, if it was any good you wouldn’t be trying to get free promotion in a blog.

  • Chris B

    dramatic temperature changes on Mars could be a large factor as Earth’s Antactic region rarely changes at all besides the seasonal changes. : It’s a long shot for sure.

  • patrick

    There are way too many people who believe the kind of stuff in EVERLASTING. If you’re going to post stuff like that at least you could emphasize that it’s fictional. Sheesh! All that does is confuse people and give them crazy ideas.

    I have a friend who thinks we were genetically modified by an advanced race of alien beings and that animals like platypi and dinosaurs were only “created” for their amusement. And I could almost guarantee he misunderstood some fictional tripe to reach that conclusion.

  • Grant H

    “johnson Says:
    April 17th, 2009 at 1:15 am
    I read these blogs to learn and be entertained, please sell your books somewhere else.”

    Damn good point actually.

    I figured he/she was using the plot line of her book to make a point about animal testing (that other post I mentioned earlier), so I took it as a genuine point of view.
    But looking at it now, I think it may well have been just a cheep tactic for promoting her work. Shameful!

    To myra, if your still around to read this, we are here for the work of the blog article author and to discuss the content therein, not for your unsolicited promotional presentations.

  • Homer_J

    Who needs the Sci-Fi channel when actual science is this interesting. This is the kind of stuff they need to regularly add to high school science classes..

  • Dave Muth

    Why is it that a lake [mostly] trapped under 1300 feet of ice “occasionally gushes forth a transparent, briny, iron-rich liquid”?

  • magilla

    I read these blogs to learn and be entertained, please sell your padantic commentaries somewhere else.

    The rust coulda started from geothermal activity, belching out iron often enough to help out those cuddly clot red bacteria.

  • Greg

    This was an interesting article but I’m always a little skeptical when they find a new biological mechanism and then say that it helps the chances for life on other planets. I get the idea, but don’t organisms on earth have a huge advantage over organisms that would start on an icy moon in terms of colonizing these barely hospitable environments. Organism on earth started in I’m assuming a shallow temperate pool with plenty of sunlight and nutrients to get started, and then through sheer numbers the odds that an adaptation came along to make them more suitable for these extreme environments. Maybe given enough time little proteins form, and from that little strands of DNA but it seems less possible. In conclusion I’m just saying I feel like an environment like this “blood falls” is far more likely to have life on earth then if the same conditions were somewhere else. Anyway, I’m ranting, you all have a good one.


  • Grant H

    @ Greg – “Anyway, I’m ranting, you all have a good one”

    No you’re not. You’re making a good point. I’ve thought about the same thing.

    But maybe the environments on other planets have changed over time. For example, the environment on Mars in the past may have been more accommodating to the emergence of life that it is now.

    @ magilla -> Sorry.

  • myra

    First allow me to state that I am sorry if by posting here I stressed out a few people. But also let me strighting out any misunderstandings. One it is not a silly sells pitch, There are points in my book about D.N.A. environment. and it in no way feeds into living forever. But I also remember that a few years ago they found a plant on another planet. And called it life on Mars. I did cover this real ordeal in my book. Being that I am a Sci Fi author, But I do like to read about and learn new and interesting things myself. So I am also here to learn and to meet others that feel the same. “Not on any drugs don’t wish to be.” I can take a blow to the ego and still keep smiling. Can something frozen for hundreds of years or even less live, grems grow when heated up, but die when over heated. If frozen are things just held in a state of being until reheated? With the warming up of Earth couldn’t there also be other planet warming and also new life formed.

  • Jessica

    Why do we always look to mars? Studies show that the Sun is getting hotter not colder. Which means that in no point in time was Mars ever in the habitable zone. If anything we should look to Mars in the future whne the Sun is starting to undergo fusion with higher elements, and thus outputting more energy.

  • Sara

    My questions is what type of Marine bacteria is it classified under? Has anyone really studied the bacteria?

  • Solara

    The thing i wonder about it those microbes that are living in the lake. They are leaking into the worlds ocean. How’s that goning to effect oceanic life? This article doesn’t point that the lake is leaking out in increased amount as the months go by.

  • solarix

    they are called “archaea”, a mix between prokaryotes and eukaryotes
    (check wikipedia)

  • Brian

    If these bacteria have been isolated there for 1.5 million years, is it possible that there could also be isolated viruses that target those bacteria? If so, could a scientist become a host/target for one of those viruses, come back home, and unwittingly start the ball rolling for a doomsday scenario involving a virus that humanity has no natural defense against?

  • S. P. Sati

    These bacteria are called chemotropic. The way they get energy for surviving is not a new phenomenon

  • Cuffie Dr Dre Beats

    scenario involving a virus that humanity has no natural defense against?

  • ruthamcau

    Of course, what a great website and informative posts, I definitely will bookmark your blog.All the Best!


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