Ancient Antarctic Ecosystem Could be Analog for Life on Other Worlds

Article written: 17 Apr , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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Scientists have found an ancient ecosystem below an Antarctic glacier, one that has survived millions of years without light or oxygen in a pool of brine. The ecosystem contains a diversity of bacteria that thrive in cold, salty water loaded with iron and sulfur. The water averages 14 degrees Fahrenheit, but doesn’t freeze because the water is three or four times saltier than the ocean. Scientists who discovered and studied the ecosystem found the bacteria convert the iron and sulfur into food. Life found in extreme conditions like this could explain how life might exist on other planets and serve as a model for how life can exist under ice. Some scientists have proposed that life could possibly be found under the outer ice layer of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Described in the April 17 issue of Science, the ecosystem lives trapped below Taylor Glacier and next to frozen Lake Bonney in eastern Antarctica, said John Priscu a longtime Antarctic researcher. Despite their profound isolation, the microbes are remarkably similar to species found in modern marine environments, suggesting that the organisms now under the glacier are remnants of a larger population that once occupied an open fjord or sea.

Jill Mikucki, lead author of the article, added that life below the glacier may help scientists answer questions about life on “Snowball Earth,” the period when large ice sheets covered the Earth. “This briny pond is a unique sort of time capsule from a period in Earth’s history,” she said. “I don’t know of any other environment quite like this on Earth.”

Priscu said researchers discovered the bacteria while investigating Blood Falls, a curious blood-red feature that flows from Taylor Glacier. They learned that the falls are red because they draw water from an iron rich pool. They discovered different types of bacteria in their samples; the most common bacteria in called Thiomicrospira arctica.

The exact size of the subglacial pool is not known precisely, but it is thought to rest under 400 meters of ice some four kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls. The researchers can’t drill down to the pool because the glacier is too thick and the pool is too far back from the glacier’s nose, Priscu said.

Sources: EurekAlert, PhysOrg


13 Responses

  1. Jon Hanford says

    It never fails to amaze me where life on Earth has taken root. Among thermophilic life on undersea vents or landbound geysers, 1km down in a mine in solid rock, inside nuclear reactors, thousands of feet overhead in the atmosphere or in high-dry desert terrain, perhaps we should be asking where CAN’T life thrive on Earth. Obviously, most of the mass of the earth is inhospitable to all life (as far as we know), but the size of the known biosphere seems to keep growing. Thanks for this fascinating story, Nancy.

  2. huygens says

    It is relatively easy to have life exist on a world in all kinds of environments when life is already abundant there and has remained so for several billion years to begin with.

    The question that needs to be posed for places like Europa and Enceladus is not so much whether they can support life as did they ever have conditions where it could get started to begin with?

    As for Mars, it may have been a nicer place billions of years ago, but things have been pretty harsh there for quite a while now. Maybe something lives deep underground, but on the surface?

  3. Geoff of Essex says

    Taking account of the variety of environments on Earth shown to be viable for the survival of lifeforms over the last several decades; together with the environments on other planets and celestial bodies in the solar system seen to be not inimical to life – and now the increasing evidence from extrasolar bodies shows that the arguments of panspermia indicates that cross-pollination of those bodies mean that life does not have to originate on a body for life to be found there. With on going studies in this area, it is not beyond conception that either native or imported life will be found in the next 20 or 30 years across the solar system or in interstellar space or extrasolar planets, etc. The evidence appears to be mounting in favour of believing that “we are not alone” – as to where life originated is another question altogether.

  4. Check out videos showing how life forms under (ice) water on all planets and moons!!
    Secrets of the universe, snowball effect etc.

  5. Max says

    There is the question of how life started on earth.
    Since we don’t know for sure what the root chemical string may have looked like, previous to any and all adaptations, you could make an argument that the earth itself is a fairly hostile place to start.
    The only thing really going for us is the massive range of living conditions (but since many of them are the result of life already existing…).

    For all we know deep under the ice sheets of Europa may be a place where the living is truly easy.
    For a microbe, anyway.

  6. GeorgeZaf says

    How do we know how much have these microorganisms been isolated?
    Could their isolation be of only a few thousand years?
    And what about the Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, as the one that the Turk naval officer Piri Reis found, in which the Antarctica appears uncovered of Ice?

  7. Andrew says

    Well, first of all, it takes a LONG time to accumulate as much as ice as are in the Antarctica ice sheets. Much longer than a few thousand years.

  8. pantzov says

    it still doesn’t seem likely that we will find native life forms on other satellites or planets in our system, but this discovery adds to the possibility that humans may be able to seed life onto other worlds. imagine… not acting like parasites for once.

  9. Marino says

    It sounds like science fiction but -yess!
    It is possible to exist life on a “exo-world” Our frozen land, here on Eart its similar like frozen worlds like Mars, or Europa…

    The evidence of life, like this in Antartica, give to us big hope – “we are not alone”!

    Life in ice, life in the core of nuclear reactor, life in hot geyser or life in frozen area..it is possible to exist life annywere in to outher planet body in space…Next 20-30 years we must explore Mars, Venus, Moon..maybe we feel lucky and find life in the other worlds-similar like life on Earth..

    Marino

  10. Chet Twarog says

    To GeorgeZaf: “And what about the Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, as the one that the Turk naval officer Piri Reis found, in which the Antarctica appears uncovered of Ice?”
    No–that map was a mythical map.
    Antarctica has been covered in an ice sheet beginning @ 14 million years ago and reached its present coverage @ 6 mya.
    Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis (“Southern Land”) date back to antiquity, the first confirmed sighting of the continent is commonly accepted to have occurred in 1820 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. However, the continent remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation. The first formal use of the name “Antarctica” as a continental name in the 1890s is attributed to the Scottish cartographer John George Bartholomew.
    [Wikipedia].

    Does this help? Will this information lead you to actually do historical, geological, and scientific research? I hope so!

  11. Gavin Flower says

    Actually the first confirmed sighting of Australia was over 50 thousand years ago, as we have evidence that humans were living there for at least that long. In fact humans were almost certainly living in Australia, before they did in England!

  12. TD says

    Microbial life under ice and the article doesn’t even mention the planet Mars?

    A planet with seasonal methane, seasonal color change, bizzare changing features near the retreating ice caps, spectroscopic evidence of organic compounds that have never been followed up on, etc. ….and now unmistakable evidence of ice right below the surface. Mars is sterile? This is either the greatest mistake in the history of science, or the greatest deception in the history of mankind.

    We played “follow the water” for years instead of looking for life – guess what….we found it. Phoenix splashed in some. Now we’re going to bypass Mars for Europa? Incredible. Phoenix could barely scrape the ice it found in Mars, and clumpy soil was a real challange. But given those pathetic technical capabilities, we’re supposed to wait for a probe to land on Europa and drill or melt through miles of ice to find an ocean, and then find life there? Ridiculous. The progress of discovering life in space today makes the age Galileo lived in seem like the enlightened age.

    I really hope that what has gone on is just incredibly poor science…because a poor scientist doesn’t scare me nearly as much as mad scientists do.

  13. Feenixx says

    @TD:
    relax, please, hold your anger….

    Nobody is going to bypass Mars for Europa. Field trips to Europa are decades away.

    long before somebody will land on Europa and drill or burn through those ice sheets, the next Rover will start seriously looking for Things That Crawl on Mars. Last Year saw the first baby steps in Mars surface exploration…. and they were SPECTACULAR baby steps. What has gone on, imo, is responsible and cautious GREAT science: technology functioning up to 35 times longer than planned…. I wouldn’t call it pathetic technology, really.

    Those deep frozen lakes under the Antarctic ice could probably provide a good testing site for the technology to explore Europa…. and perhaps give us a glimpse at what we might expect to find, or an idea of what to look for…. first on Mars, then on Europa.

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