This Is What Lives Under Antarctic Ice

By Discover Staff | August 20, 2014 1:24 pm

Colonies of bacteria cultured from samples of the water column from subglacial Lake Whillans. Credit: Brent Christner

Today scientists formalized the news Discover contributor Douglas Fox broke from the field early last year — microbial life has been found 2,600 feet below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in Lake Whillans. A paper published in Nature today reports that nearly 4,000 species of microbes inhabit the lake, the first organisms ever retrieved from a subglacial Antarctic lake.

The microbes are chemoautotrophs, meaning they get their energy not from sunlight nor from consuming other organisms but from minerals dissolved in the water. This possibility was first flagged up by the high concentrations of dissolved minerals in the lake, far higher than in the surrounding ice. “The fact that we see high concentrations is suggestive that there’s some interesting water-rock-microbe interaction that’s going on,” Andrew Mitchell, a microbial geochemist from Aberystwyth University in the UK, said at the time.

Click to view photos from the drilling site.

Livable Lake

The subglacial environment is often described as extreme. But, as Fox reported in a 2013 feature, Lake Whillans has turned out to be surprisingly hospitable.

The lake registered at just 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and pressure from the ice sheet overhead keeps the subglacial water liquid by lowering its freezing point several degrees. Lake Whillans also contains oxygen, injected into the subglacial space by air bubbles released as the ice sheet melts. It would be enough oxygen, in some cases, to support worms, starfish and other marine invertebrates on the seafloor, Fox revealed in 2013.

On Other Worlds

The discovery of abundant life in Lake Whillans is especially interesting for its exoplanetary significance — specifically on icy moons in the outer solar system.

Europa, which orbits Jupiter, and Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, harbor oceans of water beneath an outer shell of ice. Like the subglacial lakes of Antarctica, then, the water is sandwiched between ice above and a rocky core below.

Dredging viable microbes up from Lake Whillans offers a proof of concept that could eventually help justify the expense of sending a space probe to land on one of these moons and drill into its ice. Studying the ecosystems beneath Antarctica’s ice could provide important insights into what sensors the probe would need to carry, and what signs of life they could search for.

See more stories and multimedia from Lake Whillans in this special report.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: arctic & antarctic
  • Lubomir Masar

    Well – the subglacial lake of nowadays could very well be a subtropical lake back then. If so, the reported finds are life forms adapted from that era – the survivors. Europa has never had such a warm water environment, hence there might be absolutely NOTHING in its subglacial ocean. The Life is mind-blowingly unique to the planet Earth and more scarce than we think …

    • Metalhead Nick

      Yes, there might be nothing. Or, there might be something. That’s why we need to check. If, in fact the microbial life in the lake evolved from warm water, light dependent organisms, it is actually much more interesting than if they were already extremiphiles who just moved in. It would show no only the hardiness of life, but it’s amazing adaptability.

      • Metalhead Nick

        How can you say life is mind-blowing unique? We know it exists on earth. Where else have we looked, the moon? Mars is still unknown. So life is batting 50% so far as we have verified. And you suggest that we don’t look for it because you think it might not be there…

        • Lubomir Masar

          It is unique as far as we know. We have not received a shred of evidence that the universe is “teeming with life” – let alone the intelligent one. As of Aug. 22nd 2014, we are lonely hearts in the whole known universe.

          • Metalhead Nick

            As far as we know, and mind-blowing my unique are very different propositions. And just because we have not found life does not mean that there is not a shred if evidence for it. We know that mircrobes can survive the vacuum of space, and that some could survive meteor impacts. We know multicellular life such as water bears can survive in the vacuum of space. We know that meteors and astroids are often replete with organic molecules and water. We know that other planets and moons have high concentrations of organic molecules and the appropriate material for life to power itself and thrive. All we actually know, as I stated before, is that there most likely is not life on the moon. The moon which was born if fire, has no atmosphere, and lacks organic compounds.

          • Metalhead Nick

            We know that life abounds in every environment on earth. The vast amounts of time, space, and matter makes even the most unlikely things very possible. And I don’t think is unlikely. Some physicists propose that given the time spans and finite matter involved that all arrangements of physical matter will occur. I.e. You with red hair. Me as a woman, a book missing it’s last chapter. And it’s first. To the degree that the reality we are living now might even repeat itself. So then, what evidence do you have for the uniqueness if life. It is you who has none. At all. Except that we didn’t find life on the moon, where we would not expect it.

          • Lubomir Masar

            I agree that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – relevant to the “Life case” as everywhere else. All what I am stating is the current status of our knowledge is “life exists only on Earth”. Vastness of space and time may even compound the problem of ever finding it: even though there is possibly intelligent (or any) life somewhere out there we may never be able to bridge the abysses of space and time to get to know it. (And – btw – we have not found life on Mars (to sing to your tune about the Moon) – despite much more conducive environment for it; not a shred of it, nada).

          • Metalhead Nick

            Yes, we have not found life on Mars, but we have not settled that issue by any stretch. We know that the surface is not really where to look for it. In fact I think the rover is just trying to see what potential building blocks there are. So Mars is still open. In fact, to use your terms, lack of evidence that there is life on the moon is not evidence of absence. My point is thy you have no evidence what-so-ever that there is not life elsewhere. And you make very bold statements about this. Mind blowing my unique is a strong assertion. My point is that the evidence we have doesn’t point to the uniqueness of life. It points to there being a good chance it does exist. And the only way this can be settled is to go look for it. Just because we might not find life on Europa is not a compelling reason not to look there. Or anywhere else. I like the notion of looking for goldilocks planter but life could always be completely different. So we should look. We might answer one of the greatest questions in all humanity. And we might not find anything. But if we don’t look we never will. Unless extraterrestrial life finds us I suppose. I open to evidence. If you have any shred at all that there is no life out there, please share.

          • Lubomir Masar

            By the same token sir – I am open to evidence: if there is life out there, please share :-).
            (This discussion has vaguely started to remind me of the perennial dispute between atheists and believers about God’s existence; atheists say “Prove it”, theists claim “Prove that there is no god” … no offense intended, of course.)

          • Metalhead Nick

            While this is true, the difference is that we can look for life, it is tangible. God is make believe. Like Santa for adults. I cannot prove Santa doesn’t exist either. The facts point to there being myriad possibilities for life, and more that we cannot even imagine. Really all I took issue with was the view that life is mind-blowingly unique to earth. This is a very bold universal statement unsubstantiated by anything. And it seemed that you poop pooped even looking for it. Sure, there’s a good chance we will ond nothing in Europa. But why not look. I can assure that the technology and research going into such a project will not be a waste if money even if we don’t find it. There are plenty of nasa spin off products. Velcro, etc. and we will gain insight into the universe, however small it is. As to the response below, extremiphiles are fascinating and show the tenacity of life. And only I. The last decade did we realize they are not even bacteria. They are archaea a whole new branch of life we were completely unaware of. Endless possibilities abound. No sense closing the door.

          • Lubomir Masar

            I am not closing anything at all – there are endless possibilities around, I can’t agree more. Until we find life elsewhere our solitude remains. Our mind-blowing solitude of sentient beings desperately trying to find close souls in the vast void; our quest for immortality may perhaps bring solace …

          • Metalhead Nick

            My point, and I think it’s somewhere below is that yes, we have not found life anywhere else. We can agree on that. Your drawing the conclusion that life is more scarce than we think and of the uniqueness of life on earth is why I took issue. No one here has the remotest idea how scarce life is in the universe. All we know is that it exists in all kinds of places we never expected it to. That, along with everything else I said is why I think it’s doubtful life is scarce or unique to earth. There is no reason to draw that conclusion. And further, that it is more scarce than we think…who is ‘we’? We obviously have a difference of opinion. Look, I actually kind of like the way you romanticize this, but I’ve been looking for my own soul for quite sometime. And I can’t find it anywhere. My interest in this is that even finding simple life somewhere else will help close the coffin lid on the church, and our backwards religions in general so that we can go about discovering the universe and ourselves without being fettered by ignorance and close-mindedness. As to immortality, well no one wants to die, but this is the nature of our solitude. We all face death alone. To go back though, no one here is in the position to make bold statements about the relative sparcity of life in the universe. Im not the one who posted that it’s teeming with life. I might agree with her, but I’d temper my assertions, at least in any philosophical discourse. I just said that I didn’t think that you could speak for life’s uniqueness etc. and I still maintain that.

          • Lubomir Masar

            I can’t agree more on the “coffin lid” – but that’s a long way process and – looking at the “war of religions” in 2014 – there is very little optimism justified. Anyway – the immortality is maybe closer than we think; there are (as you probably know) various discussions about the “Singularity” etc. so technically we may be able to beat death (in its most biologic-physical sense) pretty soon – say in 5 generations? I am intentionally linking our solitude to a immortality quest because – to me – they are somehow interconnected: I sense that the uniqueness of ours (you evidently strongly disagree with) is feeding that immortality dream: we need more and more and even more time to find the likes of ours in the endless space …

          • Metalhead Nick

            I actually agree with pretty much all of that. I know, religion never seems to go away. It’s like those prophets of doom whose followers become even more ardent after d-day fails to come. As to immortality, we will get there soon, one way or another. My hope is to stay alive long enough that we can extend our lives at least until we are around longer enough to further extend our lives. That’s not clear. Like if in 20 years we can add 50 to our lifetime, and in 50 more years you can another 50…whatever…as to the singularity, if you mean time travel, given enough time we will probably crack that too. That’s my other plan to do something cool enough that time travellers will come back and save me. It won’t happen, but still a better chance than god or Jesus saving me. I think you’re right that somehow our loneliness with ourselves and others and in the universe is psychologically linked to the quest for immortality. Life is either too short or too long already, but it would be nice to be around to see how things turn out…

          • Lubomir Masar

            Sometimes I question the very sense of something lasting – say – 10 billion years, or even periods of time 10**30 years (according to some lifetime of a proton). Those are just labels we put on utterly unimaginable long time periods whose real duration we just cannot fathom – not at all. Therefore, immortality as existence of your consciousness for – say – 100,000 years would be probably (more than) enough to fully entertain all what life can offer :-).
            On the other hand – according to what we know now about our universe – everything is mortal, even that longevous proton; nothing lasts forever. We are part of the universe, so we have to respect her laws. Immortality is a false concept our oversized brains fabricated just because we have that cognitive capacity to create such concepts and delve into them – and we do it, oftentimes ad nauseam.

          • Metalhead Nick

            Well said. I don’t even think we can fathom what it would be like to live a thousand years. While we might think otherwise, deep time really is completely lost on us.

          • Lubomir Masar

            Again – all the “corroborating evidence of potential extraterrestrial life” you are alluding to is just very indirect – perhaps those are shreds, but truly microscopic ones. It is difficult to disprove what I said about the ACTUAL life uniqueness. The whole life phenomenon may very well be just Mother Nature’s unintended singular joke, nothing more. If that’s the case (very bold speculation, I know), life is not even extremely scarce – it is a miracle (anthropocentrically said, no religious subtext intended).

    • Metalhead Nick

      And in what ways is life scarce? It’s everywhere we have looked on the planet.

    • Anna Anunnaki

      Typical earthbound and earthcentric human, thinks he knows everything about the universe. When was the last time you traveled to another planet? What makes you such an authority on life? We humans have barely been walking upright and now some of us think we know everything. The Catholic Church spent 1800 years trying to convince us that we are all there is in the Universe. This line of thinking was picked up by the “scientists,” but thats starting to change as more people are admitting that the universe could be teeming with life.

      • Lubomir Masar

        Dear Anna, we are voicing opinions and tossing ideas – certainly not a place for your ad hominem comments about “typicality” etc. Just keep the line of the conversation, will you?

    • Somebody_Else

      When I was in school, there were lots of environments on earth where we were taught it’s impossible for life to exist there.
      Now we know that there are numerous creatures in all those environments. There are even those that survive in space.
      If you want more information, look up Extremophiles.

      There are currently some theories that an extremophile environment may have been like the primordial environment where life on this planet began. Also, you shouldn’t forget that the early environment wasn’t the nice pleasant one we have now with lots of oxygen and other niceties.

      Don’t exclude the possibility of life existing in other places just because you can’t imagine it. It turns out that life is a damn sight more tenacious and creative than we ever thought.

      • Lubomir Masar

        I am not excluding anything and can imagine life elsewhere – all what I am expressing is my opinion based on hard facts: we have not found any other life elsewhere, ergo we – as life on Earth – are alone until proved otherwise. There is no disbelief or skepticism in my statement – just a sober realization that we have not found yet anything extraterrestrial amounting to a life form – live of dead.

        • Metalhead Nick

          Again, not nearly as grandiose as the statements that precipitated this. It is one thing to say we have no evidence, proclaiming it’s uniqueness to a high degree is drawing a conclusion from that. And Therein lays my issue.

  • MichaelMJames

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  • Bea Torres

    There must be something out there otherwise the government wouldn’t put tight security


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