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Water, sediments in ice-bound antarctic lakes may harbor unique microorganisms, ecosystems

Liquid lakes buried thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice sheet are likely the home to unique habitats and creatures that thrive in them. Exploration of those lakes will therefore require extreme care and an international cooperative effort, according to a team of authors writing in the Dec. 6 issue of Nature.

The pressure exerted by the continent-wide ice sheet together with heat generated by the Earth from below and the enormous insulating properties of the overlying ice sheet, may mean that liquid water exists in many -- if not all -- of the lakes. That may mean that they harbor life, according to a team of authors, led by Martin Siegert of Bristol University.

Microbiologists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), working with ice samples gathered from deep beneath Russia's Vostok Station -- that is thought to be refrozen water from Lake Vostok itself -- have argued that microbes may survive in extreme cold and darkness under more than 4,000 meters of ice. John Priscu of Montana State University, one of those NSF-funded biologists, is a co-author of the paper.

Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie thousands of meters under the ice sheet. The lakes include one under the South Pole and another, Lake Vostok, deep in the Antarctic interior, that is comparable in size and depth to one of the North American Great Lakes.

Given the conditions in the lakes, the authors state, it is reasonable to believe "that subglacial lakes house a variety of microorganisms potentially unique to subglacial Antarctica and, if they are isolated hydrologically, unique to each lake."

In the Nature article, Priscu and his colleagues also argue that the sediments at the bottom of Lake Vostok, and in other lakes, may also sustain life.

They caution, though, that developing both the technology and the experimental protocols to explore those lakes without contaminating the waters or harming any microbial communit
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Contact: Peter West
pwest@nsf.gov
703-292-8070
National Science Foundation
5-Dec-2001


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