New Bacteria Discovered In Samples From Antarctica's Lake Vostok
March 8, 2013

New Bacteria Discovered In Samples From Antarctica’s Lake Vostok

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Samples taken from an underground lake in Antarctica last January contain a new life form previously unknown to science, according to researchers who are in charge of studying the returned samples. The team said they have discovered a bacterium that has been sealed off for more than a million years in the depths of what is now known as Lake Vostok.

The scientists, led by Sergei Bulat of the genetics laboratory at the Saint Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics, said the icy darkness of this subglacial lake, more than 2 miles deep, may provide a glimpse of the planet before the last Ice Age, as well as clues to life on other planets.

Bulat said the new life form bears no resemblance to any that is known today. "After putting aside all possible elements of contamination, DNA was found that did not coincide with any of the well-known types in the global database," he said in an interview with state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. "We are calling this life form unclassified and unidentified."

The new discovery comes just over a year after Russian scientists drilled down to the surface of the under-ice lake, which is believed to have been sealed off from the rest of the world for more than a million years, and has remained in a liquid state due to the tremendous pressure from the ice above, lowering the point at which water freezes.

Bulat said the new bacterium was found to have DNA that was less than 86 percent similar to previously identified organisms. "In terms of work with DNA this is basically zero. A level of 90 percent usually means that the organism is unknown," he told AFP.

Now, the team of researchers is awaiting more samples from Lake Vostok to continue their analysis. Bulat noted that the drill team headed back to Antarctica in January and should arrive home in May with more deep-core samples to analyze.

"If this [life form] had been found on Mars everyone would have undoubtedly said there is life on Mars. But this is bacteria from Earth,” he said, adding that if analysis can pick up “the same group of organisms in this water we can say for sure that we have found new life on Earth that exists in no database.”

The discovery of the new organism came after analyzing water that froze onto the end of the drill used to bore through to Lake Vostok.

Some concerns were raised that the bacteria could have come from other sources at the drill site, specifically the drilling fluid, which has been known to contain bacterial organisms. But Bulat maintained that the technology used to keep from polluting the lake means only clean samples are being returned, and researchers separated out the species of bacteria that are known to exist in drilling fluid to ensure non-contamination.

Exploring these deep, dark, near-freezing bodies of water allow scientists to gain insight into how life can exist in extreme conditions and also offers hope that similar experiments on distant planets and icy moons can yield evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

There is already growing excitement about life theoretically existing on Saturn´s moon Enceladus and Jupiter´s moon Europa. Planetary astronomers believe these bodies have vast ocean or lake networks under their icy surfaces.

As for here on Earth, the first mention of a lake existing under Antarctica´s icy landscape came in 1957, when a Soviet scientist suggested such bodies existed. The first drilling project began in 1989, and Lake Vostok´s existence was confirmed in 1996.

Since the 1970s, seismic and satellite technologies have pinpointed more than 170 sub-glacial lakes under Antarctica´s surface, with Vostok among the largest, covering an area about 9,000 square miles.

Earlier this year, a US-funded team drilled into Lake Wilhans — a much shallower and far-less-extensive body of water under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The US WISSARD team reported at the end of January that they had successfully retrieved samples containing microbial life, but would wait for further analysis in the lab setting before jumping to conclusions.

A British Antarctic Survey also got in on the action and funded an expedition to Lake Ellsworth this past December. However, after several problems with their drilling equipment the team was forced to stop and pack up for the season, vowing to return when the next Antarctic summer begins.

The Russian team had been trying to successfully reach Lake Vostok since at least 1996. In 1998 drilling was halted over concerns that the team could pollute the ancient pristine waters with their equipment. In 2003 better technology was developed and work was resumed in 2005. The team successfully penetrated the lake in January 2012.