Brand New, Never Before Seen Bacteria Found in Frozen Antarctic Lake—Maybe

Scientists are revealing, then recanting, then reaffirming their claim to have discovered a new type of bacteria

Lake Vostok
Lake Vostok has been cut off from the environment for ages beneath the thick Antarctic ice. NASA/GSFC

Back in February 2012, a Russian drilling team wrapped up their decades-long push to drill into Lake Vostok, a body of water buried deep beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets. Then, this past October, the unfortunate news came out that, the first water samples collected indicated that lake was a barren wasteland.

But now, various scientists are revealing, then recanting, then reaffirming their claim to have discovered a new type of bacteria.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that “a new form of microbial life has been found” in the lake and that “the ‘unidentified and unclassified’ bacterium has no relation to any of the existing bacterial types.”

Later that day (and a few days following the initial announcement), says Science, came the rebuttal: the bacterium wasn’t brand new, but rather the result of contamination.

We found certain specimen, although not many, but all of them belonged to contaminants (microorganisms from the bore-hole kerosene, human bodies or the lab),” he said. “There was one strain of bacteria which we did not find in drilling liquid, but the bacteria could in principal use kerosene as an energy source. That is why we can’t say that a previously-unknown bacteria was found.

But, the original scientists—the ones behind the initial announcement—are defending their claim, says Nature.

peaking to Nature, Bulat stood by the claim and said that the team had taken steps to rule out potential contamination.

“We are very sure that what we have found is an unclassified native microbe,” Bulat said. “It seems to belong to a division of uncultured environmental bacteria that haven’t been determined yet.”

Obviously, more and cleaner samples and a bit more lab work could help suss out exactly what is going on. But, says Nature, the potential discovery of an as-of-yet unknown bacteria is exciting, it is also, in a way, not too surprising.

But many point out that, given that about 90% of bacteria on Earth remain uncultured and unsequenced, finding bacterial DNA that doesn’t fully match that of well-classified taxa is not very surprising.

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