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article imageMicrobes discovered 800 meters deep in Antarctica lake

By Tim Sandle     Aug 22, 2014 in Science
Samples taken from an Antarctic lake 800 meters below the ice reveal an abundance of microbial life. The lake was the vast and mysterious Lake Whillans.
Back in January 2013, a team of U.S.-based researchers announced they had successfully extracted liquid water from Lake Whillans, which lies 800 meters (2,624 feet) beneath the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet.
A short while afterwards, the scientists issued a statement indicating that they thought microbial life was present, alive and metabolizing energy. In August 2014, the researchers have confirmed their findings in a new science paper.
One risk with such investigations is cross-contamination. According to the BBC, the researchers are very sure that their study of Lake Whillans contained few, if any, surface contaminants because of the ultra-clean drilling methods employed to get down through the ice to the lake body.
As to how the microorganisms function in such harsh conditions, because little light reaches the depths of these subglacial lakes, the ecosystems that exist in these environments must derive energy from another source. The scientists think that inorganic compounds — such as ammonium, nitrate, and sulfides — may serve this function.
Commenting on the findings, lead author Brent Christner of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge told ScienceNews: "The number of microorganisms we saw in the water was very comparable with what you’d find in a typical surface lake or in the ocean. We were very surprised.”
The findings have been published in the journal Nature. The paper is titled "A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet."
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