BOZEMAN, MT--A team led by Montana State University biologist John Priscu has discovered bacteria in an ice core drilled from deep within a frozen Antarctic lake.
The bacteria came from Lake Vostok, a subglacial body of water the size of Lake Ontario resting more than two miles under the East Antarctic ice cap.
"From a biologist's perspective, this is the Holy Grail of lake biology," Priscu said before leaving Montana for another field season on the frozen continent. "Our findings indicate that the microbial world has few limits on our planet."
Priscu's team, along with two other groups studying Vostok ice, will publish its findings in the Dec. 10 issue of the journal Science.
The team includes seven MSU scientists plus scientists from the University of Alabama, the U.S. Geological Survey and the NASA Ames Research Center.
The Vostok ice is among the deepest ever explored for life, Priscu said, and could be a model for searching for life in frozen environments elsewhere in the solar system.
"You don't have to leave the planet to study this completely unexplored system, but the samples sure aren't easy to get," Priscu said of the Vostok core, drilled by Russian scientists and distributed through the National Science Foundation.
The clear ice core, 18 inches long and 4 inches wide, was plucked from 3,590 meters (about 11,800 feet) below the surface of the ice sheet and about 150 meters (495 feet) above Lake Vostok. Discovered in 1974, the lake is one of the world's ten deepest bodies of water and one of about 70 lakes underneath the glaciers of central Antarctica.
The bacteria, commonly associated with soils, are related to microbes called proteobacteria and actinomycetes. They could have been blown on bits of soil from the Patagonian deserts onto the East Antarctic ice sheet and then buried, Priscu said. If so, the microbes could be more than half a million years old.