Scientists drilling 2,600 feet through the Antarctic continent's ice cap say they've found, for the first time, creatures living beneath. If confirmed, the discovery of bacteria in Antarctica's subglacial lakes—dark and chilly at 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and mostly cut off from the outside world—would be a stunning example of created things thriving in harsh environments.
A U.S. research team found the microbes in a water sample collected from Lake Whillans, a shallow, 23-square-mile body of water buried deep beneath the ice cap. Late last month they used a jet of hot water to penetrate the final feet of ice above the lake, then used a gray tube to collect water samples.
Wearing white Tyvek suits to prevent contamination, the scientists performed careful tests: They were able to view the cells directly under a microscope, and their water samples glowed green when they added a special dye, indicating the presence of cellular DNA. They also found the level of a biological enzyme, ATP, was higher in the lake water than in the borehole water, suggesting the microbes had truly come from Lake Whillans and were not a result of contamination.
The samples will need to undergo further testing, and the team will need to publish its data in a research journal in order for its discovery to be scientifically valid. It's not yet clear what species the bacteria are, or whether they are new to science: The team will have to wait to return to the United States to perform DNA tests, team member John C. Priscu told The New York Times. Other tests will show whether the bacteria subsist on organic matter floating in the subglacial lakes, or somehow make their living off of minerals in the water.
The U.S. researchers are one of three teams that have been drilling ice cores in hopes of finding life in Antarctica's subglacial lakes. A British team abandoned their borehole above Lake Ellsworth in December due to an equipment failure, and a Russian team has already collected untested samples from Lake Vostok.
Douglas Fox, a journalist embedded with the U.S. team in Antarctica, reported on the drilling project firsthand last week on a Discover Magazine blog. He also took pictures of the project, seen in this slideshow.