Antarctic microbes can survive for millennia

Living microbes found buried for tens of thousands of years

An American research team has found the most definitive evidence yet that life is able to survive for millennia beneath polar ice sheets.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (Wissard) project discovered living microbes in an Antarctic lake that has been buried beneath hundreds of metres of solid ice for tens of thousands of years. 

Their study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that primitive microbes, belonging to a group called the Archaea, are able to survive in isolated and buried ecosystems where water remains unfrozen, despite being at sub-zero temperatures, due to it being highly pressurised.

“We were able to prove unequivocally that Antarctica is not a dead continent,” said Professor John Priscu of Montana State University, chief scientist on the Wissard project.

The team, which drilled into Lake Whillans, 800m below the West Antarctic ice sheet, have stolen a march on British and Russian colleagues by being the first to retrieve microbes from such an environment without any contamination.