Rich Diversity of Life May Be Locked In Antarctic Lake

A new study suggests that a bevy of bacteria and other life could be dwelling in Lake Vostok.

Lake Vostok, circled. Credit: NASA/PD-USgov
Lake Vostok, circled. Credit: NASA/PD-USgov

As someone who has visited Antarctica, I’m always excited to hear news about one of the most remote but breathtaking places on the planet. What makes Antarctica so exciting is that it’s not just a lot of floating sea ice, like the Arctic region. No, Antarctica is a giant continent (about the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined), with 14,000-foot mountain ranges and lakes hidden below miles of glacial ice. I was fortunate enough to watch scientists scuba dive into a small submerged lake, Lake Vanda, that melted during the summer.

Schematic cross-section of Lake Vostok. From PLoS One
Schematic cross-section of Lake Vostok. From PLoS One

So, the recent news that scientists have found evidence for an abundance of life in a lake trapped more than two miles below a glacier is both exciting and awe-inspiring. In a nutshell, scientists analyzed ice cores taken from an area where the glacier meets the lake—Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest subglacial lake—and found 3,500 unique genetic fragments in their core samples. More than 90 percent of the genetic material comes from a wide range of different bacteria. This is a biological bonanza: a lake frozen over now, but once open to the sky and surrounded by a forest 35 million years ago. Here are the details on the findings, published in PLoS ONE.

For those looking for evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system, like on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, which is believed to have a liquid ocean below a surface of ice, this is welcome news (some scientists have said that Vostok might serve as an “earthboung analog“).

Here is where to find a good story written about it from the LA Times. Some interesting history about the controversial drilling projects at Lake Vanda, started by the Russians years ago, can be found here.

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About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.