Researchers find ‘intriguing’ DNA in warm Antarctic caves

Traces of DNA discovered in soil samples collected from warm caves located beneath the ice of Antarctica suggest that the region may be home to never-before-seen plant and animal species, a new study published earlier this week in the journal Polar Biology has revealed.

According to BBC News, a team of researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and the University of Waikato in New Zealand discovered “intriguing traces of DNA from mosses, algae and small animals” in caves located near an active volcano on Ross Island.

Steam originating from that volcano, Mount Erebus, created the caves by heating and hollowing out the ice, the British media outlet explained. In fact, as lead researcher Dr. Ceridwen Fraser of ANU noted, the caves “can be really warm – up to 25 degrees Celsius in some caves. You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable.”

The region also appears to be comfortable to other types of species as well, as Dr. Fraser and her colleagues discovered DNA in soil samples collected from those caves. While the majority of the DNA resembles that of plants and animals found in other parts of Antarctica, some of the genetic sequences could not be completely identified using forensic analysis.

“The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica,” Dr. Fraser said in a statement. In fact, she added, “there might even be new species of animals and plants” waiting to be discovered in these warm, subglacial caverns.

New species of plants and animals may inhabit these caves

As an active volcano, Mount Erebus has hollowed out an extensive cave system on Ross Island, the researchers explained, creating a geothermal region which could be home to a “microrefugia” or a small area inhabited by relict plant or animal species that have managed to survive.

However, as co-author Laurie Connell from the University of Maine emphasized, the discovery of these yet-unidentified traces of DNA does not conclusively prove that the caves are currently home to plants or animals. “The next steps,” she said, “will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms. If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world.”

The scientists have good reason to be hopeful, as University of Waikato professor Craig Cary told BBC News, as previous research revealed the existence of a wide array of bacteria and fungi living in volcanic caves in Antarctica. “The findings from this new study suggest there might be higher plants and animals as well,” he added.

While that possibility still needs to be verified, the authors believe that their discovery provides evidence to support the possibility that geothermal areas, including subglacial ecosystems, could cultivate biodiversity in icy regions such as Antarctica. Furthermore, since Antarctica is home to many volcanoes, there could well be several other sub-glacial cave systems located across the continent.


Image credit: : Eli Duke/Flickr