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Dispute over life in Antarctic lake

that I published, but I have an open mind and would certainly capitulate if and when I am proven wrong."

The disagreements don't end there. Bulat and colleagues believe there are no bacteria in the ice because the lake is too toxic to support life. If so, Lake Vostok will be the only known sterile body of water on Earth. Though the lake itself has not been sampled, theoretical calculations predict that it has been pumped full of oxygen released from air bubbles in the overlying ice. None can escape, so oxygen concentrations are thought to have rocketed to around 50 times the norm for lakes. "Oxygen is very toxic at these concentrations," says Bulat. Added to this, he says, the probable concentrations of other by-products of this hyper-oxygenated environment, such as hydrogen peroxide and highly reactive free radicals, would destroy living organisms.

Jean Robert Petit of the Laboratory of Glaciology and Geophysics of the Environment at Grenoble, France, agrees. "It's a cold hell," he says. "It was once an open pond which probably contained life. Between 15 and 30 million years ago it started to freeze over, then gases accumulated in the lake and finally it sterilised itself," he says. This hypothesis has provoked scorn from John Priscu of Montana State University in Bozeman, author of one of the original papers on microbes in the Vostok accretion ice (Science, vol 286, p 2141). Priscu questions the assumption that the lake is poisonous, pointing out that Lake Vostok contains only around 10 times as much oxygen as other under-ice lakes in a region of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys, which are full of life.

"Free radicals are caused by radiation and ultraviolet light, and neither exists down there," he says. Besides, microbes can protect themselves against the hyper-oxygenation by producing antioxidants. "We should look for bio-signatures of microbes that can produce these," says Priscu. He believes the bottom of Lake Vostok, like t
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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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