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Dispute over life in Antarctic lake

t molecular biologist Sergey Bulat of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russia, has created a furore by questioning the accuracy of this research.

At last week's meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in Bremen, Germany, Bulat claimed that these microbes are contaminants. His team compiled a list of 80 microbes found in their lab and in the drill hole that could have contaminated the Vostok ice. All but three of the organisms discovered in the ice are on the list. "We find bacteria in the accretion ice, but can eliminate most of them using our contamination database," says Bulat. Other researchers say the decontamination techniques used on the core sample, which involve washing it and removing the outer layers, would be completely effective. Brent Christner of the Montana State University in Bozeman has even tested for kerosene and other markers to distinguish the outside from the inside of the core. He is confident the cells he has found are authentic lake microbes. "The numbers of microbes in the accretion ice are two to seven times as high as numbers in the overlying glacial ice," says Christner. "This indicates that the lake is a source of life. All the data points to the fact that there are microbes and they're alive." But Bulat disagrees. "We don't have different results, only a different interpretation," he says.

Others are impressed with Bulat's methods, but argue he is being too stringent. "His methods are so severe they might cut out things that could be in the lake," says Chris McKay, at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Yet others are reserving judgement on the issue. "Of course the ice core is contaminated," says David Karl of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, whose 1999 analysis of Vostok accretion ice reported up to 300 cells per millilitre of ice (Science, vol 286, p 2144). "We dealt with that potential problem in our processing of the core," he says. "I stand by the data
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
4-Aug-2004


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