Sealed Beneath Ice for Thousands of Years, Life Still Exists

Written by on November 27, 2012 in Marine Life, Physical Oceanography

Emily Tripp

Researchers have discovered ancient microbes in an Antarctic lake, sealed beneath 65 feet of ice and isolated from the surface environment for at least 2,800 years.

Halobacteria can survive in highly salty conditions.

Halobacteria can survive in highly salty conditions. Photo credit: NASA.

“This provides us with new boundary conditions on the limits for life,” said Peter Doran, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago(UIC).  “The low temperature or high salinity on their own are limiting, but combined with an absence of solar energy or any new inputs from the atmosphere, they make this a very tough place to make a living.”

The research team collected samples of brine within the ice by drilling out cores.

They found that the brine:

  • has no oxygen
  • is slightly acidic
  • contains high levels of organic carbon and molecular hydrogen
  • contains both reduced and oxidized compounds

Their findings were surprising, as the conditions beneath the ice are dark, cold, extremely salty, and completely isolated.

“Geochemical analyses suggest that chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying sediment generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen,” said Fabien Kenig, also a professor at UIC.  “The hydrogen may provide some of the energy needed to support microbes.”

“We’d like to go back and find if there is a proper body of brine without ice down there,” said Doran.  “We’d also like to get some sediment cores from below that to better establish the history of the lake.  In the meantime, we are using radar and other geophysical techniques to probe what lies beneath.”

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Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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