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Dispute over life in Antarctic lake

hat of many lakes, could be anaerobic and so provide a refuge from high oxygen levels in the upper parts. Other researchers also think that microbes will cope with Vostok's challenging environment.

"Almost every place we look, we find new types of organisms," says Scott Rogers from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who has also analysed Vostok accretion ice and found very low numbers of what he thinks could be genuine bacteria. "I expect the same in Vostok." But what if the Russians are right? "It would be bigger news if Lake Vostok were found to be sterile, than the more probable result that it contains a small population of slow-growing microbes," says Karl. "We will not know the answer to this until we have a whole lake sample in our hands for proper investigation." This could happen soon.

A Russian team aims to break into the lake in the southern hemisphere summer of 2006-2007. Ignoring a proposal from an international panel to drill a new, cleaner hole through the ice and enter the lake using a self-sterilising "cryobot", the Russians plan to enter the lake from the existing, highly contaminated drill hole. They calculate that high pressure in the lake will prevent drilling fluid from polluting the water. Christner, among others, is concerned.

"The Vostok ice was not drilled under the cleanest of conditions," he says. "It is imperative that we employ methods to verify the authenticity of samples we obtain."

But with a complete lack of consensus on how to distinguish between authentic microbes and contaminant organisms, analysis of the lake water could prove as controversial as that of the ice above it. This has implications for the search for life outside Earth, because the lake is a unique test area for exploration of icy moons and planets. Considering that hundreds of microbes were found even in the clean rooms of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the Mars Rovers that are now roaming the Red Planet, the ar
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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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