First Signs of Life Found in Antarctica’s Subglacial Lakes

Preliminary tests from subglacial Lake Willard have shown signs of life

A camera passes down through the borehole.
A camera passes down through the borehole. WISSARD

Yesterday, a hot water drill melting through 2,600 feet of ice finally made it through to subglacial Lake Willard. This was the final push of a decade-long mission by an American research team, and in the first sample of water pulled from Lake Willard, the team found preliminary signs of life, says Douglas Fox for Discover:

When lake water was viewed under a microscope, cells were seen: their tiny bodies glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye. It was the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake.

Since the 1968 discovery of subglacial Lake Sovetskaya, scientists have known of the lakes hidden beneath Antarctica. Over the past twenty years—starting with a Russian mission into Lake Vostok—research teams have fought the harrowing conditions to push their way through the miles-thick ice into these ancient, secluded realms. The discovery of extremophile organisms living in some of the harshest conditions of Earth, from hyper-salty lakes to deep-sea hydrothermal vents, drove scientists to suspect that life could be harbored here, too, in a frigid body of water cut off from the world for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

Efforts from two other drilling projects culminated this year, but each came up short in their quest for life. A third expedition, to Antarctica’s Lake Vida, found abundant bacteria. But though Lake Vida is extremely harsh, it is not a subglacial lake.

The preliminary findings will need to be followed up, says Fox, “since dead cells can sometimes show up under a microscope with DNA-sensitive staining.”

Weeks or months will pass before it is known whether these cells represent known types of microbes, or something never seen before.

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