Wacky science: Extreme Antarctic bacteria

For millennia they have lurked undiscovered in the harsh depths of Antarctic waters. Cut off from outside contact by a virtually impenetrable layer of ice and devoid even of oxygen, they have managed to thrive.

A closeup view of the bacteria in Lake Vida. Image from NetMassimo.

Scientists are examining a colony of hardy bacteria that managed to make their home in the inhospitable depths of Lake Vida in the Victoria Valley. These bacteria have lived in a self-contained ecosystem until this discovery, isolated from outside influence, as far as can be determined.

Researchers used drills and heated pipes to get through the ice, setting up a “clean room” on top of the hole to protect the environment from outside contaminants.

Previous studies have shown the brine (where the bacteria have made their home) of Lake Vida has been cut off from the surface for at least 2,800 years. Iron-laced compounds in the brine cause it to vary in color from yellow to orange.

Water temperature was found to be 8 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 13 degrees Celsius), and its salinity was around five to six times greater than average ocean water. The salinity prevents the water from freezing despite the temperature.

Scientists found high levels of carbon-based compounds in the brine as well as high levels of compounds that tend to react with each other, such as nitrous oxygen and molecular hydrogen.

The molecular hydrogen could possibly serve as fuel for the bacteria, the scientists said. The bacteria’s survival is also aided by their incredibly slow rate of metabolism, which allows them to make an energy supply last a long time.

Researchers are excited for the implications this bacteria might have for the existence of life on other planets. It has been contended that where there is water there is life, and these findings seem to bear that idea out.

Similar conditions can be found outside the Earth in places like Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Antarctic microbes prove that life can indeed survive in unexpected and inhospitable places, and may lead future extraterrestrial research to look for alien life in areas they might not previously have thought to search.