Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Confirmed: 800 meters beneath Antarctic ice sheet, subglacial lake holds viable microbial ecosystems

22.08.2014

Cutting-edge technology and science of the NSF-funded WISSARD project make discovery possible

B-roll from the WISSARD project is available by contacting Dena Headlee, dheadlee@nsf.gov / (703) 292-7739.


Brent C. Christner (right), of Lousiana State University, and Alex Michaud, a graduate student at Montana State University, retrieve the first water sample from Antarctica's subglacial Lake Whillans.

Credit: Reed Scherer, Northern Illinois University

In a finding that has implications for life in other extreme environments, both on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system, researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) this week published a paper confirming that the waters and sediments of a lake that lies 800 meters (2,600 feet) beneath the surface of the West Antarctic ice sheet support "viable microbial ecosystems."

Given that more than 400 subglacial lakes and numerous rivers and streams are thought to exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, such ecosystems may be widespread and may influence the chemical and biological composition of the Southern Ocean, the vast and biologically productive sea that encircles the continent.

According to Brent C. Christner, the paper's lead author and a researcher with the NSF-funded Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, "Hidden beneath a half-mile of ice in Antarctica is an unexplored part of our biosphere. WISSARD has provided a glimpse of the nature of microbial life that may lurk under more than 5 million square miles of ice sheet."

Analysis of the samples taken from subglacial Lake Whillans, the researchers indicate, show that the water contains a diverse microbial community, many members of which can mine rocks for energy and use carbon dioxide as their source of carbon. 

Added John Priscu, a WISSARD scientist at Montana State University, Bozeman and a co-author on the paper,  the Antarctic subglacial environment is our planet's largest wetland, one dominated completely by microorganisms.

The WISSARD findings are published in the Aug. 21 issue of the journal Nature by scientists and students affiliated with WISSARD, which is a collaboration involving researchers at numerous institutions across the United States.

Christner is a professor of biology at Louisiana State University (LSU). Other co-authors on the paper include students and researchers from LSU; the University of Venice in Italy; New York University; the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; St. Olaf College in Minnesota; the University of Tennessee; and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom.

NSF, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program through its Division of Polar Programs, provided more than $10 million in grants as part of NSF's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 portfolio to support the WISSARD science and development of related technologies.

NASA's Cryospheric Sciences Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the private Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also provided support for the project.

The WISSARD team made scientific and engineering history in late January of 2013 when they used clean hot-water drilling technology to access subglacial Lake Whillans. This permitted the retrieval of pristine water and sediment samples that had been isolated from direct contact with the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

The interdisciplinary WISSARD research team included groups of experts in the following areas of science: life in icy environments, led by Priscu; glacial geology, led by Ross Powell, of Northern Illinois University; and glacial hydrology, led by Slawek Tulaczyk, of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Definitive evidence of life in subglacial lakes

The realization that a vast aquatic system of rivers and lakes exists beneath the ice in Antarctica has spurred investigations to examine the effect on ice-sheet stability and the habitability of environments at the bed. The latest WISSARD announcement is the first to provide definitive evidence that a functional microbial ecosystem exists beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, confirming more than a decade of speculation about life in this environment.

Using various methods, including airborne radar surveys, scientists have built a knowledge base about Antarctica's subglacial hydrological system over the past 40 years. The largest of the subglacial lakes, subglacial Lake Vostok in East Antarctica, is one of the largest lakes on our planet in terms of volume and depth and has been isolated beneath the ice sheet for more than 10 million years.

Samples of microbes from Lake Vostok have been collected indirectly by examining ice collected above the liquid part of the Lake- ice that refroze--accreted--on the bottom of the ice sheet.

These samples, which were described in 1999 by Priscu, the chief scientist of the WISSARD project, and David Karl of the University of Hawaii, presented the first evidence for life beneath the huge Antarctic ice sheet.

However, the drilling techniques used to retrieve the Vostok samples and the low amount of microbial biomass present in the samples had called into question previous studies that concluded the lake supports a living ecosystem.

The WISSARD team drilled into subglacial Lake Whillans using a clean hot-water drill and incorporated rigorous measures to avoid the introduction of foreign material into the lake.

The approach to drilling was guided by recommendations in the 2007 National Research Council-sponsored report, "Exploration of Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments: Environmental and Scientific Stewardship," aimed to protect these unique environments from contamination.

A team of engineers and technicians directed by Frank Rack of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, designed and fabricated the specialized hot-water drill that was fitted with a filtration and germicidal UV system to prevent contamination of the subglacial environment and to recover clean samples for microbial analyses. In addition, the numerous customized scientific samplers and instruments used for this project were also carefully cleaned before being lowered into the borehole through the ice and into the lake.

A major concern that drove the clean-drilling techniques and protocols is that it is still unclear how interconnected the subglacial aquatic system is. Researchers did not want to risk contaminating the entire system through their sampling of one body of water.

The newly published paper also raises a separate issue of the connectivity of Lake Whillans to the wider global ecosystem, noting that the lake is part of network of three major reservoirs beneath the Whillans Ice Stream that regulate the transportation of water to a subglacial estuary--an area where fresh and salt water mix--which links the subglacial aquatic system to the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf.

"Given the prevalence of subglacial water in Antarctica," the researchers write, "our data...lead us to contend that aquatic microbial systems are common features of the subsurface environment that exists beneath the ... Antarctic ice sheet."

Media Contacts
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-7530, pwest@nsf.gov
Dawn Jenkins, Louisiana State University, (225) 578-2935, djenkins1@lsu.edu
Evelyn Boswell, Montana State University, (406) 994-5135, evelynb@montana.edu
Whitney Heins, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, (865) 974-5460, wheins@utk.edu
James Devitt, New York University, (212) 998-6808, james.devitt@nyu.edu

Principal Investigators
Brent C. Christner, Louisiana State University, (225) 578-1734, xner@lsu.edu
John C. Priscu, Montana State University, (406) 994-3250, jpriscu@montana.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Peter West | Eurek Alert!
Further information:
http://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=132267&org=NSF&from=news

Further reports about: Antarctic Antarctica Lake NSF WISSARD aquatic ecosystem ecosystems environments microbial

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht A new 3D viewer for improved digital geoscience mapping
20.09.2016 | Uni Research

nachricht The significance of seaweed
16.09.2016 | King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: OLED microdisplays in data glasses for improved human-machine interaction

The Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP has been developing various applications for OLED microdisplays based on organic semiconductors. By integrating the capabilities of an image sensor directly into the microdisplay, eye movements can be recorded by the smart glasses and utilized for guidance and control functions, as one example. The new design will be debuted at Augmented World Expo Europe (AWE) in Berlin at Booth B25, October 18th – 19th.

“Augmented-reality” and “wearables” have become terms we encounter almost daily. Both can make daily life a little simpler and provide valuable assistance for...

Im Focus: Artificial Intelligence Helps in the Discovery of New Materials

With the help of artificial intelligence, chemists from the University of Basel in Switzerland have computed the characteristics of about two million crystals made up of four chemical elements. The researchers were able to identify 90 previously unknown thermodynamically stable crystals that can be regarded as new materials. They report on their findings in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Elpasolite is a glassy, transparent, shiny and soft mineral with a cubic crystal structure. First discovered in El Paso County (Colorado, USA), it can also be...

Im Focus: Complex hardmetal tools out of the 3D printer

For the first time, Fraunhofer IKTS shows additively manufactured hardmetal tools at WorldPM 2016 in Hamburg. Mechanical, chemical as well as a high heat resistance and extreme hardness are required from tools that are used in mechanical and automotive engineering or in plastics and building materials industry. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS in Dresden managed the production of complex hardmetal tools via 3D printing in a quality that are in no way inferior to conventionally produced high-performance tools.

Fraunhofer IKTS counts decades of proven expertise in the development of hardmetals. To date, reliable cutting, drilling, pressing and stamping tools made of...

Im Focus: Launch of New Industry Working Group for Process Control in Laser Material Processing

At AKL’16, the International Laser Technology Congress held in May this year, interest in the topic of process control was greater than expected. Appropriately, the event was also used to launch the Industry Working Group for Process Control in Laser Material Processing. The group provides a forum for representatives from industry and research to initiate pre-competitive projects and discuss issues such as standards, potential cost savings and feasibility.

In the age of industry 4.0, laser technology is firmly established within manufacturing. A wide variety of laser techniques – from USP ablation and additive...

Im Focus: New laser joining technologies at ‘K 2016’ trade fair

Every three years, the plastics industry gathers at K, the international trade fair for plastics and rubber in Düsseldorf. The Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will also be attending again and presenting many innovative technologies, such as for joining plastics and metals using ultrashort pulse lasers. From October 19 to 26, you can find the Fraunhofer ILT at the joint Fraunhofer booth SC01 in Hall 7.

K is the world’s largest trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry. As in previous years, the organizers are expecting 3,000 exhibitors and more than...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Experts from industry and academia discuss the future mobile telecommunications standard 5G

23.09.2016 | Event News

ICPE in Graz for the seventh time

20.09.2016 | Event News

Using mathematical models to understand our brain

16.09.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Chains of nanogold – forged with atomic precision

23.09.2016 | Life Sciences

New leukemia treatment offers hope

23.09.2016 | Health and Medicine

Self-assembled nanostructures hit their target

23.09.2016 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>