WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Researchers have discovered a complex sub-glacial system under the Antarctic ice, which might be teeming with life in the form of mineral-hungry microbes.
According to a report in the National Geographic News, the watery environment under Lake Vostok, might be more than one-and-a-half times the size of the United States, making it the worlds largest wetland.
“If you peel back the ice sheet, you would expect a watery landscape similar to what we would see on the surface of Earth,” said Michael Studinger, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York.
“This is essentially a whole new world that ten years ago we didn’t know existed,” he added.
Lakes in Antarctica have been isolated from the atmosphere for more than 30 million years, ebbing and flowing as they empty into the polar sea. The reason for their fluid state is because the ice sheet above acts like a gigantic down blanket, trapping heat rising from Earth’s interior.
“Fifteen years ago people thought the east Antarctic ice sheet was frozen to bedrock, but now we know that’s not the case,” said Studinger. This is a dramatic development in the way we look at Antarctica,” he added.
This discovery holds significance to the scientific community, as the bodies of water found under the ice are fundamental to several Earth processes.
For example, outbursts from subglacial lakes, may have a lot to do with how the continents are shaped and reshaped, said Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University.
The lakes may also hold an untapped wealth of climate records that could improve our understanding of how life evolved, he added.
But the most important find is the evidence that microbes can live in the subglacial lake, deriving energy from minerals, the report states.
The search for this evidence started when John Priscu, an ecologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, began studying organisms that live in frozen ice, in 1992.
Priscu took some lake water that was refrozen at the bottom of the ice sheet above Lake Vostok and compared DNA found in the ice with DNA of organisms listed in gene banks. Several of the DNA sequences from the gene bank were similar to the DNA in the icesuggesting comparable organisms live in the subglacial lake.
The microbes may survive in little veins wedged between frozen crystals of icea pretty big house for microorganisms,” Priscu told National Geographic News.
According to Priscu, if hydrothermal vents are found in Lake Vostok that resemble energy-rich, biodiverse vents in the deep ocean, even higher-order organisms could be found.
The frigid remoteness of Antarctica has one more benefit to scientists: it is a polar desert with similarities to Mars and the Jovian moon Europa.
These comparisons may help scientists who are studying the emerging picture of life on other icy worlds, said Priscu.
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