No Light, No Warmth, No Problem: Extreme Life Thrives in Antarctic Lake


Microbial life has been discovered sealed in a brine lake beneath 65 feet of Antarctic ice after spending nearly 3,000 years isolated from external energy sources. 

The findings, detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describe the microbes’ Lake Vida habitat as aphotic (with little or no light), anoxic (without oxygen), and slightly acidic brine with a temperature of -13C. Carbon dating has indicated that the inhospitable-sounding brine has been isolated for more than 2,800 years.

“This provides us with new boundary conditions on the limits for life,” said Peter T Doran, a professor at the University of Illinois’ Earth and Environmental Science department, in a press release. “The low temperature or high salinity on their own are limiting, but combined with an absence of solar energy or any new inputs from the atmosphere, they make this a very tough place to make a living.”

Previous studies of the brine in Lake Vida from 2002 had discovered the presence of ancient microbes, however these needed to be thawed before life signs were observed. The most recent result showed Vida to contain a diverse and metabolically active bacteria-dominated ecosystem.

Written By: Philippa Warr
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  1. Life is probably not an improbable event in the universe.  If it is and it is only to be found here then the diversity resulting from evolution is even more impressive than we can imagine

  2.  That was my first thought when I read “65 feet of ice”.

    Of course I have no solid evidence to back this belief, but I believe, statistically, that we cannot be “alone” in this massive universe. A more fundamental question is what constitutes life, specifically, how do we define life. Obviously we are limited by our sample size, but just as evolution has produced such diversity here on earth, is it inconceivable that evolution could allow life to evolve into forms that we may not recognize?

  3. There is interesting history and technology, as to how these lakes are found and studied:-…. –
    Map Characterizes Active Lakes Below Antarctic Ice

    ( — Lakes in Antarctica, concealed under miles of ice, require scientists to come up with creative ways to identify and analyze these hidden features. Now,
    researchers using space-based lasers on a NASA satellite have created the most comprehensive inventory of lakes that actively drain or fill under Antarctica’s ice. They have revealed a continental plumbing system that is more dynamic than scientists thought.

    British and American Teams Hunt for Life Under Antarctic Ice –… 

    Roughly 380 subglacial lakes have been discovered and mapped in Antarctica, and they have been explored remotely with ice-penetrating radar, gravity measurements, and seismic sensors.
    The lakes were created by geothermal heat that melts the Antarctic ice from below. Gravity and pressure force the melt water to flow, and it collects under the ice.

    If everything goes according to plan, Lake Ellsworth will be the second lake to be breached after Lake Vostok was reached in February.
    A US team is heading to Lake Whillans, a small, shallow body of water close to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf.
    The discovery of exotic microbial life, which could have evolved untouched for millennia, is one of the aspects of this research.
    Scientists have already discovered bacteria that mine their energy from rocks and minerals, and they assume that there are many specialized microbes living underneath Antarctica.

  4. This certainly does make a trip to Europa all the more enticing — provided we have the technology to drill through ~60 miles of ice. 

    My question is, because life currently exists in the harsh conditions of Lake Vida, does that necessarily mean that life can arise in those conditions, or has life in this case simply evolved (adapted) to those conditions?

  5.  Exactly what I thought, Billions. We know the animals living round the hot vents in the seabed evolved from those living nearer the sunlight. Blind cave creatures still have remnants of eyes.

    No doubt a creationist would invoke the Adam’s navel argument, and say God wouldn’t make an “imperfect ” animal without any eyes.

    By the way, it wasn’t 60 MILES of ice!

  6. Obviously these Antartctic microbes share the same basic DNA-structure and the same common ancestry with the rest of us. It would have been the biggest science scoop ever to have found a second genesis.

    So, no evidence whatsoever that life has independently arisen anywhere else. But this discovery makes it a tiny bit more likely.

  7. There is life in Antarctica in other  places as well as in the sub-glacial lakes: 

    Life in an Icy Inferno – http://ngm.nationalgeographic….  –
    We’ve come to one of the coldest spots on Earth to search for beings that thrive in blistering heat. In a place with full daylight for four months, we’re seeking life that dwells in utter darkness.
    Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus.

    There is a “Photogallery” of spectacular pictures here!


  8. Billions and Billions
    This certainly does make a trip to Europa all the more enticing — provided we have the technology to drill through ~60 miles of ice. 

    Getting a space probe into liquid below ice, can be easier than using a large drilling rig.

    A probe with a nuclear isotope thermocouple generator and a heat management system, can simply melt the ice around it and sink through the hole until it drops into the liquid below.  The melt above it will refreeze, but that does not matter. 
    It could even pay-out a cable to a surface radio relay station as it sank.

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