Offering evidence that life seems capable of existing just about anywhere on or even near Earth’s surface, researchers have discovered a “surprising variety” of organisms among samples taken from a lake more two miles beneath a glacier in Antarctica.
The ice covering Lake Vostok has been in place for the past 15 million years, creating tremendous pressure on the subglacial body of water.
Conditions in the region are so harsh and unpredictable that scientists must utilize special gear and undergo survival training just to visit the site, according to the website RedOrbit.
As such, researchers thought the environment would be too severe for life.
Yet, upon studying core samples removed from the deep layer of ice at the point where the glacier met water, samples were found to be teeming with life, according to Scott Rogers, a biological sciences professor at Bowling Green State University.
“We found much more complexity than anyone thought,” he said. “It really shows the tenacity of life, and how organisms can survive in places where a couple dozen years ago we thought nothing could survive.”
Lake Vostok is the largest of some 400 subglacial lakes scattering among Antarctica’s frozen depths. It was first drilled in 1998 by a team of Russian, French and American scientists.
Because the lake is buried so deeply under an Antarctic glacier and is so dark and cold, researchers believed it would be an ideal spot in which to research the uninhabitable conditions of other planets.
Two separate core samples from different areas of the lake have shown similar finds, according to RedOrbit.
“The team used DNA and RNA sequencing of the ice core samples to identify thousands of bacteria, including some that are commonly found in the digestive systems of fish, crustaceans and annelid worms, as well as in fungi,” according to the website. “Other species discovered are associated with habitats of lake and ocean sediments.”
The team found both psychrophiles – organisms associated with extreme cold – and thermophiles – those that prefer heat. The latter suggests that there may be hydrothermal vents deep in the lake, keeping these organisms alive.
(Above: The balmy confines of Vostok Station, from where researchers conduct testing on Lake Vostok, two miles below the surface.)