THE first tantalising signs of life have been detected in waters from a subglacial lake half a mile beneath the snowy wastes of the Antarctic, scientists said.
Water retrieved from sub-glacial Lake Whillans contains tiny cells which glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye applied in preliminary tests.
While researchers need to carry out further time-consuming tests to see whether the cells are actually still alive, it offers the possibility that there could be as yet unknown life lurking beneath the ice.
The findings come a fortnight after a team of scientist adventurers made the perilous 1,000 mile journey from the US-controlled McMurdo Station to the location of Lake Whillans.
The researchers from the US-led Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project spent weeks boring down 2,600ft through the thick ice to make a hole big enough to collect samples.
Science journalist Douglas Fox, who is embedded with the WISSARD team, wrote in Discover magazine: 'At 6:20am on January 28, four people in sterile white Tyvek suits tended to a winch winding cable onto the drill platform.
'One person knocked frost off the cable as it emerged from the ice borehole a few feet below.
'The object of their attention finally rose into sight: a gray plastic vessel, as long as a baseball bat, filled with water from Lake Whillans, half a mile below.'
The water sample was hurried into the team's mobile lab, where some was squirted into bottles containing a growth medium which will culture whatever bacteria it contains.
It may be weeks or months before scientists know for certain whether what they have found are new discoveries or merely examples of microbes that exist elsewhere on Earth.
Researchers say it is likely that the microbes probably eat rocks in the lake. They also said that, despite being sealed under 2,600ft of ice, they probably have a steady oxygen supply from ice melting around the lake.
'When you melt ice, you’re liberating the air bubbles [trapped in that ice],' WISSARD team member Mark Skidmore told Discover Magazine. That’s 20 percent oxygen. It’s being supplied to the bed of the glacier.'
To enable clean access into Lake Whillans a team of engineers and technicians spent nearly two years building a new hot-water drill capable of melting through 2,500 feet of ice in just a few days. It was able to blast a pressurised hot water jet at up to fifty gallons a minute - equivalent to 800 glasses of water in 60 seconds.
The drill is connected to a truck-sized water filter to remove cells and particles larger than eight onemillionths of an inch, and kill any remaining cells with a powerful dose of germicidal UV radiation.
All drill parts and scientific tools entering the borehole were pre-cleaned with hydrogen peroxide and, finally, went through a microbe-killing UV chamber.
Subglacial Lake Whillans is part of a vast Antarctic subglacial aquatic system, comparable in size to the area of the US
Discovery of life in this isolated environment will help scientists understand the limits of life on Earth and inform the search for life on other planets.
'This is one of the last unexplored frontiers on our planet-understanding the functional role of subglacial organisms will provide us with new information on the role of the Antarctic in the Earth system,' said Professor John Priscu of Montana State University, leader of the WISSARD microbiology group. –DM