In recent years, the idea of life on other planets has become less far-fetched. NASA announced June 27 that it will send a vehicle to Saturn's icy moon, Titan, a celestial body known to harbor surface lakes of methane and an ice-covered ocean of water, boosting its chance for supporting life.
On Earth, scientists are studying the most extreme environments to learn how life might exist under completely different settings, like on other planets.
The roof of the tunnel is covered in hoar frost, spiky ice crystals that form as moisture in the air solidifies in the minus 6 degrees C environment of the tunnel. The layers below are colder. Researchers leave presterilized pipes inserted in the floor for future access to the liquid layer below.
Credit: Zac Cooper/University of Washington
A University of Washington team has been studying the microbes found in "cryopegs," trapped layers of sediment with water so salty that it remains liquid at below-freezing temperatures, which may be similar to environments on Mars or other planetary bodies farther from the sun.
At the recent AbSciCon meeting in Bellevue, Washington, researchers presented DNA sequencing and related results to show that brine samples from an Alaskan cryopeg isolated for tens of thousands of years contain thriving bacterial communities. The lifeforms are similar to those found in floating sea ice and in saltwater that flows from glaciers, but display some unique patterns.
"We study really old seawater trapped inside of permafrost for up to 50,000 years, to see how those bacterial communities have evolved over time," said lead author Zachary Cooper, a UW doctoral student in oceanography.
Cryopegs were first discovered by geologists in Northern Alaska decades ago. This field site in Utqia?vik, formerly known as Barrow, was excavated in the 1960s by the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory to explore large wedges of freshwater ice that occur in the permafrost there. Subsurface brine was eventually collected from the site in the 2000s.
"The extreme conditions here are not just the below-zero temperatures, but also the very high salt concentrations," said Jody Deming, a UW professor of oceanography who studies microbial life in the Arctic Ocean. "One hundred and forty parts per thousand -- 14% -- is a lot of salt. In canned goods that would stop microbes from doing anything. So there can be a preconceived notion that very high salt should not enable active life."
It's not fully known how cryopegs form. Scientists believe the layers might be former coastal lagoons stranded during the last ice age, when rain turned to snow and the ocean receded. Moisture evaporated from the abandoned seabed was then covered by permafrost, so the remaining briny water became trapped below a layer of frozen soil.
To access the subsurface liquids, researchers climb about 12 feet down a ladder and then move carefully along a tunnel within the ice. The opening is just a single person wide and is not high enough to stand in, so researchers must crouch and work together to drill during the four- to eight-hour shifts.
Deming describes it as "exhilarating" because of the possibility for discovery.
Samples collected in the spring of 2017 and 2018, geologically isolated for what researchers believe to be roughly 50,000 years, contain genes from healthy communities of bacteria along with their viruses.
"We're just discovering that there's a very robust microbial community, coevolving with viruses, in these ancient buried brines," Cooper said. "We were quite startled at how dense the bacterial communities are."
The extreme environments on Earth may be similar to the oceans and ice of other planets, scientist believe.
"The dominant bacterium is Marinobacter," Deming said. "The name alone tells us that it came from the ocean - even though it has been in the dark, buried in frozen permafrost for a very long time, it originally came from the marine environment."
Mars harbored an ocean of water in the past, and our solar system contains at least a half-dozen oceans on other planets and icy moons. Titan, the moon of Saturn that NASA will explore, is rich in various forms of ice. Studying life on Earth in frozen settings that may have similarities can prepare explorers for what kind of life to expect, and how to detect it.
The research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to learn how bacteria and viruses coevolve in different marine environments. Other collaborators at UW are Josephine Rapp, a postdoctoral researcher in Oceanography, Max Showalter, a doctoral student in Oceanography, and Shelly Carpenter, a research scientist in Oceanography.
Hannah Hickey | EurekAlert!
The nucleolus – a known organelle with new tasks
12.07.2019 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biochemie
How plague pathogens trick the immune system
12.07.2019 | Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
For some phenomena in quantum many-body physics several competing theories exist. But which of them describes a quantum phenomenon best? A team of researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Harvard University in the United States has now successfully deployed artificial neural networks for image analysis of quantum systems.
Is that a dog or a cat? Such a classification is a prime example of machine learning: artificial neural networks can be trained to analyze images by looking...
An international research group led by scientists from the University of Bayreuth has produced a previously unknown material: Rhenium nitride pernitride. Thanks to combining properties that were previously considered incompatible, it looks set to become highly attractive for technological applications. Indeed, it is a super-hard metallic conductor that can withstand extremely high pressures like a diamond. A process now developed in Bayreuth opens up the possibility of producing rhenium nitride pernitride and other technologically interesting materials in sufficiently large quantity for their properties characterisation. The new findings are presented in "Nature Communications".
The possibility of finding a compound that was metallically conductive, super-hard, and ultra-incompressible was long considered unlikely in science. It was...
An interdisciplinary research team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has built platinum nanoparticles for catalysis in fuel cells: The new size-optimized catalysts are twice as good as the best process commercially available today.
Fuel cells may well replace batteries as the power source for electric cars. They consume hydrogen, a gas which could be produced for example using surplus...
The fly agaric with its red hat is perhaps the most evocative of the diverse and variously colored mushroom species. Hitherto, the purpose of these colors was...
Physicists at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg report the first result of the new Alphatrap experiment. They measured the bound-electron g-factor of highly charged (boron-like) argon ions with unprecedented precision of 9 digits. In comparison with a new highly accurate quantum electrodynamic calculation they found an excellent agreement on a level of 7 digits. This paves the way for sensitive tests of QED in strong fields like precision measurements of the fine structure constant α as well as the detection of possible signatures of new physics. [Physical Review Letters, 27 June 2019]
Quantum electrodynamics (QED) describes the interaction of charged particles with electromagnetic fields and is the most precisely tested physical theory. It...
24.06.2019 | Event News
29.04.2019 | Event News
17.04.2019 | Event News
12.07.2019 | Physics and Astronomy
12.07.2019 | Life Sciences
12.07.2019 | Health and Medicine