Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Unusual Antarctic microbes live life on a previously unsuspected edge

20.04.2009
That descendents of marine creatures appear to have thrived in cold, darkness and lack of air for a million years has implications for the search for life elsewhere in the solar system

An unmapped reservoir of briny liquid chemically similar to sea water, but buried under an inland Antarctic glacier, appears to support unusual microbial life in a place where cold, darkness and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive, according to newly published research.

After sampling and analyzing the outflow from below the Taylor Glacier, an outlet glacier of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in the otherwise ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, researchers believe that, lacking enough light to make food through photosynthesis, the microbes have adapted over the past 1.5 million years to manipulate sulfur and iron compounds to survive.

The microbes also are remarkably similar in nature to species found in marine environments, leading to the conclusion that the populations under the glacier are the remnants of a larger population of microbes that once occupied a fjord or sea that received sunlight. Many of these marine lineages likely declined, while others adapted to the changing conditions when the Taylor Glacier advanced, sealing off the system under a thick ice cap.

The research will be published in the April 17 edition of the journal Science.

The research answers some questions and raises others about the persistence of life in extreme environments such as under glaciers, or even in liquid lakes trapped kilometers under the Antarctic ice sheet, environments that until recently scientists would not have believed could support living creatures.

"Among the big questions here are 'how does an ecosystem function below glaciers?', 'How are they able to persist below hundreds of meters of ice and live in permanently cold and dark conditions for extended periods of time, in the case of Blood Falls, over millions of years?," said Jill Mikucki, the lead author on the paper.

Mikucki is a National Science Foundation-funded researcher at Dartmouth College in the Department of Earth Sciences and a Visiting Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding and its Institute of Arctic Studies.

The Dry Valleys are completely devoid of animals and complex plants and scientists consider them to be one of the Earth's most extreme deserts. The Valleys receive, on average, only 10 cm (3.93 inches) of snow each year. Despite the lack of precipitation, during the Antarctic summer, temperatures rise just enough for glaciers protruding into the valleys to begin melting. The meltwater forms streams that enter lakes covered by ice that is two to three stories thick.

Mikucki and her colleagues based their analysis on samples taken at the ominously, but aptly named Blood Falls, a water-fall-like feature at the edge of the glacier that flows irregularly, but often has a strikingly bright red appearance in stark contrast to the icy background.

The Dry Valleys have been the target of scientific inquiry since the early days of Antarctic exploration in the so-called "Heroic Age" early in the 20th Century. Even the earliest explorers noted the massive stain at the snout of the glacier and speculated as to what may have caused it.

"The original explorers," Mikucki said, "thought that red alga was responsible for the bright color."

More than a century later, the Dry Valleys remain a source of immense scientific curiosity. One of NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research projects network of 26 sites worldwide is located there. And, as part of its research program during the International Polar Year (IPY), NSF supported an extended research season in the Dry Valleys, allowing scientists for the first time to stay in the field as six months of darkness descended to study how the microscopic creatures there reacted.

NSF administers the U.S. Antarctic Program and was the lead U.S. agency for IPY.

In the paper, however, Mikucki and her colleagues argue that the creatures that survive under the Taylor Glacier are both far more exotic and far more adaptable than the early explorers thought.

Because the outflow from the glacier follows no clear pattern, it took a number of years to obtain the samples needed to conduct an analysis. Finally she obtained a sample of an extremely salty and clear liquid for analysis.

"When I started running the chemical analysis on it, there was no oxygen," she said. "That was this when got really interesting, it was a real 'eureka' moment."

Further genetic analysis suggests that of the relatively small numbers of microorganisms found in the brine, "the majority of these organisms are from marine lineages," she said.

In other words, microorganisms more similar to those found in an ocean than on land, but capable of surviving without the food and light sources available in the open ocean.

"The salts associated with these features are marine salts, and given the history of marine water in the dry valleys, it made sense that subglacial microbial communities might retain some of their marine heritage," she added.

This led to the conclusion that the ancestors of the microbes beneath the Taylor Glacier probably lived in the ocean many millions of years ago. When the floor of the Valleys arose more than 1.5 million years ago, a pool of seawater from the fjord that penetrated the area was trapped. The pool was eventually capped by the flow of the glacier.

The briny pond, whatever it's size "is a unique sort of time capsule from a period in Earth's history," Mikucki said. " I don't know of another environment quite like this on Earth."

Life below the Taylor Glacier may help scientist address questions about life on "Snowball Earth", the period of geological time when large ice sheets covered the Earth's surface. But it's also a rich laboratory for studying life in other hostile environments, including the subglacial lakes of Antarctica and perhaps even on other icy planets in the solar system such as below the Martian ice caps or in the ice-covered oceans of Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

Peter West | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nsf.gov

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht New mathematical model can help save endangered species
14.01.2019 | University of Southern Denmark

nachricht Foxes in the city: citizen science helps researchers to study urban wildlife
14.12.2018 | Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Flying Optical Cats for Quantum Communication

Dead and alive at the same time? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have implemented Erwin Schrödinger’s paradoxical gedanken experiment employing an entangled atom-light state.

In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger formulated a thought experiment designed to capture the paradoxical nature of quantum physics. The crucial element of this gedanken...

Im Focus: Nanocellulose for novel implants: Ears from the 3D-printer

Cellulose obtained from wood has amazing material properties. Empa researchers are now equipping the biodegradable material with additional functionalities to produce implants for cartilage diseases using 3D printing.

It all starts with an ear. Empa researcher Michael Hausmann removes the object shaped like a human ear from the 3D printer and explains:

Im Focus: Elucidating the Atomic Mechanism of Superlubricity

The phenomenon of so-called superlubricity is known, but so far the explanation at the atomic level has been missing: for example, how does extremely low friction occur in bearings? Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes IWM and IWS jointly deciphered a universal mechanism of superlubricity for certain diamond-like carbon layers in combination with organic lubricants. Based on this knowledge, it is now possible to formulate design rules for supra lubricating layer-lubricant combinations. The results are presented in an article in Nature Communications, volume 10.

One of the most important prerequisites for sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility is minimizing friction. Research and industry have been dedicated...

Im Focus: Mission completed – EU partners successfully test new technologies for space robots in Morocco

Just in time for Christmas, a Mars-analogue mission in Morocco, coordinated by the Robotics Innovation Center of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) as part of the SRC project FACILITATORS, has been successfully completed. SRC, the Strategic Research Cluster on Space Robotics Technologies, is a program of the European Union to support research and development in space technologies. From mid-November to mid-December 2018, a team of more than 30 scientists from 11 countries tested technologies for future exploration of Mars and Moon in the desert of the Maghreb state.

Close to the border with Algeria, the Erfoud region in Morocco – known to tourists for its impressive sand dunes – offered ideal conditions for the four-week...

Im Focus: Programming light on a chip

Research opens doors in photonic quantum information processing, optical signal processing and microwave photonics

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new integrated photonics platform that can...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Our digital society in 2040

16.01.2019 | Event News

11th International Symposium: “Advanced Battery Power – Kraftwerk Batterie” Aachen, 3-4 April 2019

14.01.2019 | Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Velcro for human cells

16.01.2019 | Life Sciences

Kiel physicists discover new effect in the interaction of plasmas with solids

16.01.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

The pace at which the world’s permafrost soils are warming

16.01.2019 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>