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Scientists: Microbial Life Thriving in Isolated Antarctic Environment Hints at Possibility of Alien Life



Antarctica is providing scientists with a fascinating example of biological activity thriving in extreme environments.

Scientists encamped at Lake Vida in Antarctica find microbes in isolate extreme environment. Photo Credit/Desert Research Institute

The research undertaken by experts from NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Desert Research Institute, and the University of Illinois and nine other schools, hints at the possibility of microbiobial colonies as distant as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Experts found a microbial colony — isolated for at least 3,000 years — lurking 65 feet blow the ice covered surface of Lake Vida in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of northern Antarctica. There is no obvious sign of solar energy in the darkened depths. Temperatures were measured at minus 8 degrees F. The salinity of the water is six times that of normal ocean water.

“This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa,” said Chris McKay, a senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., in a NASA statement. McKay is a co- author of a paper on the findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition, of Nov. 26.

Though small, these are some rugged critters.

Mostly frozenLakeVidacontains no oxygen and registers one of the highest nitrous oxide levels of any natural water body on Earth. It’s one of the best places on Earth to raise the question of whether some forms of life might exist on alien planets, whether they orbit our sun or a distant star.

“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said Alison Murray, a molecular microbial ecologist at DRI, of Reno, Nev., and the paper’s lead author.

“Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now,” saidMurrayas part of the NASA statement. “This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”

Project principal investigator Peter Doran, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, developed and enforced stringent techniques during field campaigns to Lake Vida to avoid contaminating the study site with outside bacteria.

“The microbial ecosystem discovered at Lake Vida expands our knowledge of environmental limits for life and helps define new niches of habitability,” noted Adrian Ponce, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and another co-author. He was also quoted in the NASA statement.





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