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 Clouds and climate in the pre-industrial age
30.05.2016 | Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

nachricht Researchers find higher than expected carbon emissions from inland waterways
25.05.2016 | Washington State University

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Attosecond camera for nanostructures

Physicists of the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich in collaboration with scientists from the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg have observed a light-matter phenomenon in nano-optics, which lasts only attoseconds.

The interaction between light and matter is of key importance in nature, the most prominent example being photosynthesis. Light-matter interactions have also...

Im Focus: Worldwide Success of Tyrolean Wastewater Treatment Technology

A biological and energy-efficient process, developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck, converts nitrogen compounds in wastewater treatment facilities into harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas. This innovative technology is now being refined and marketed jointly with the United States’ DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water). The largest DEMON®-system in a wastewater treatment plant is currently being built in Washington, DC.

The DEMON®-system was developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck 11 years ago. Today this successful technology has been implemented in about 70...

Im Focus: Computational high-throughput screening finds hard magnets containing less rare earth elements

Permanent magnets are very important for technologies of the future like electromobility and renewable energy, and rare earth elements (REE) are necessary for their manufacture. The Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg, Germany, has now succeeded in identifying promising approaches and materials for new permanent magnets through use of an in-house simulation process based on high-throughput screening (HTS). The team was able to improve magnetic properties this way and at the same time replaced REE with elements that are less expensive and readily available. The results were published in the online technical journal “Scientific Reports”.

The starting point for IWM researchers Wolfgang Körner, Georg Krugel, and Christian Elsässer was a neodymium-iron-nitrogen compound based on a type of...

Im Focus: Atomic precision: technologies for the next-but-one generation of microchips

In the Beyond EUV project, the Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen and for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena are developing key technologies for the manufacture of a new generation of microchips using EUV radiation at a wavelength of 6.7 nm. The resulting structures are barely thicker than single atoms, and they make it possible to produce extremely integrated circuits for such items as wearables or mind-controlled prosthetic limbs.

In 1965 Gordon Moore formulated the law that came to be named after him, which states that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every one to two...

Im Focus: Researchers demonstrate size quantization of Dirac fermions in graphene

Characterization of high-quality material reveals important details relevant to next generation nanoelectronic devices

Quantum mechanics is the field of physics governing the behavior of things on atomic scales, where things work very differently from our everyday world.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Networking 4.0: International Laser Technology Congress AKL’16 Shows New Ways of Cooperations

24.05.2016 | Event News

Challenges of rural labor markets

20.05.2016 | Event News

International expert meeting “Health Business Connect” in France

19.05.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Better combustion for power generation

31.05.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Stick insects produce bacterial enzymes themselves

31.05.2016 | Life Sciences

In a New Method for Searching Image Databases, a Hand-drawn Sketch Is all it Takes

31.05.2016 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>