Under 2,500 feet of ice at the South Pole, a 23 square mile unfrozen lake sinks in total darkness beneath this immense mass of ice and snow. What is in this buried lake is even more surprising: life. Microbes thrive in this incredibly inhospitable environment, feeding on chemicals released by crushed rock caused by erosion.
New research from the University of Bristol details how different types of microscopic organisms survive on a previously unknown source of nutrients from ancient sediments. Their results were published this month in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.
Finding out how these microbes exist under such extreme conditions may provide clues to scientists looking for life on other planets. Study author Beatriz Gill Olivas, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, says this research may offer clues as to where to look to explore other worlds.
“Antarctic lakes can be an indicator of extreme environments in other planetary systems,” she told Harry Baker. Live Science. “They offer excellent insight into how microbial life might survive in other environments.”
Olivas leads an international team of scientists studying microbial life in Antarctica’s Whillans Lake, discovered from space in 2007. They used sediment samples taken from the body of water and replicated the environment by laboratory, measuring the various compounds released by pulverized rock. , including methane, ammonium, nitrogen, sulfur and iron.
The team showed that the single-celled organisms of Whillans Lake, namely bacteria and archaea, had abundant nutrients not only to survive but also to thrive, reports Isaac Schultz of Gizmodo. Scientists have found that the body of water contains 54 times the amount of carbon needed to sustain life. Olivas points out that microbes could live throughout the large subglacial lake due to the high levels of compounds essential for life.
“The Whillans Subglacial Lake is part of a large, interconnected hydrologic system, so upstream erosion could represent a potential source of biologically important compounds for this lake and other lakes in the system that could support thriving communities. microbial life, ”she told Schultz.
This study was the first to use sediment samples from the lake. Olivas says the compounds produced in his lab were enough to support both methanotrophs, microbes that depend on methane for carbon and energy, and methanogens, microbes that produce methane.
“Only two previous studies have examined the potential influence of erosion on subglacial energy and nutrient sources, which involved the crushing of largely unaltered rock samples,” she said in a statement. Bristol University Press Release. “This is the first study to use severely weathered ancient marine sediments, but the gas concentrations measured are broadly consistent with previous results.”
While this research helps explain how these microbes survive in Antarctica, it also provides insight into how life might exist elsewhere in the solar system and beyond. Since many planets are frozen in place or experience extreme temperatures, digging in frozen areas could allow scientists to eventually discover alien life.
“We obviously can’t say that these processes will definitely support exoplanetary microbes,” Olivas told Baker. “However, it certainly offers information on how microbes from frozen planets and moons can survive.”