Antarctic microbes can survive for millennia
Living microbes found buried for tens of thousands of years
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 21 August 2014
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.
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