Weekly news: Squeezing the Juice from a frozen lake

I’M GENUINELY intrigued by the reports which have surfaced in the last few days from the deep drilling project in Antarctica, which has found thriving microbial colonies in very hostile conditions in a sub-glacial lake.

It has long been suggested that if life can survive under deep ice in Antartica, it may well exist in other deep icy places in the solar system. The Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are each thought to harbour deep salty oceans beneath their airless icebound surfaces, and are now in the first rank of places to seek extraterrestrial biology.

The finding of the project at Lake Vida in Antarctica were reported this week in the online journal PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/11/21/1208607109 )

Lake Vida barely qualifies as a lake. Located in the dry valleys of the continent, it is frozen almost all the way from the surface to its bottom. Despite its relatively shallow depth of just 27m, it is believed that that ecosystem below the surface has been isolated from the rest of the planet for about 3000 years.

This is a very different proposition to the deep drilling projects at Lake Vostok, up to 4000m deep, and Lake Ellsworth, 3000m deep, which so far have yielded no biological results. But there is more to Lake Vida than a frozen puddle with a stratum of icy mush.

Temperatures are a cool -13C, there is no oxygen, salinity is high at 200ppt, or about six times typical seawater. It is an acidic environment rich in reduced metals, ammonia, molecular hydrogen (H2), and nitrous oxides. It is, in short, not a place you’d choose if you wanted to grow anything.

And yet bacterial life is thriving down there. As the researchers succinctly put it: “A phylogenetically diverse and metabolically active Bacteria dominated microbial assemblage was observed in the brine”.

This discovery vindicates the European Space Agency decision earlier this year to proceed with the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer mission, which I think has two great things to commend it. One is that it is looking for life in the places we now think it is most likely to be found, and the other is that it has possibly the best acronym of any space mission to date: Juice.

I hope you find the LabHomepage website, and this weekly newsletter, useful. Comments and feedback are always welcome: news@labhomepage.com Please help us build our circulation base by forwarding this to any friends that might like it, and suggest they subscribe at http://eepurl.com/itOV2
best wishes
Russ Swan

editor, LabHomepage.com





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