As Jeff Goldblum once said, “Life finds a way.” Despite all the odds and the harsh conditions found throughout our planet, science has yet to find an environment that is completely devoid of at least some sort of microbial community. And now, that list of odd habitations has just become a little bit weirder.
A large team of scientists recently broke through a layer of ice 88 feet thick that had completely sealed off a lake in Antarctica from the rest of the world for around 2,800 years. That means it has had no source to bring in oxygen, no way to be exposed to the energy of the sun’s light, and that its waters are about six times saltier than the ocean. It also stays right around eight degrees Fahrenheit at all times.
It’s not a nice place to live.
And yet – to the surprise of nobody, really – the scientists have discovered hardy forms of life in the waters of Lake Vida. The microbes discovered are only about one-tenth as abundant as the amount of life in a typical sample of ocean water, but they’re there nonetheless.
There are several theories as to how these microbes stay alive. Some single-celled forms of life have been known to take carbon directly out of their surrounding environment, giving them the energy to sustain biological functions. However, because it is sealed from the rest of the world, any carbon that is in the lake would have had to be there for 2,800 years. So you’d think they might have run out by now.
Another, more promising theory, is that the microbes are living off of ionized hydrogen in the water created through chemical reactions between the saline waters and the rocks at the lake’s floor. This is how microbes discovered in deep gold mines have already been shown to survive.
Whatever the methods, the discovery puts new boundaries on what conditions life can eke out a living within. And it gives more hope that organic compounds and the most basic functions of life might be found in extreme environments outside of Earth, such as on the surface of Mars or Saturn’s ice-covered moon Enceladus.
The paper detailing the discovery, “Microbial life at −13 °C in the brine of an ice-sealed Antarctic lake,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by University of Illinois at Chicago professors Peter Doran and Fabien Kenig, along with collaborators from the Desert Research Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, the University of Colorado, Curtin University of Technology, Michigan State University, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Montana State University, the University of Georgia, the University of Tasmania, and Indiana University.