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No signs of life in Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok, the vast body of water hidden beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, has so far shown no signs of life.
Credit:   Nicolle Rager-Fuller, NSF
A cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica
 |     |   10-22-2012
Russian scientists are reporting success in their quest to drill into Lake Vostok, a huge body of liquid water buried under the Antarctic ice.

Isolated from the rest of the planet for 14 million years, Lake Vostok might be the only body of water on Earth to contain no life whatsoever. However, if life is found, it will be a big boost for researchers hoping to find microorganisms on icy moons like Europa, New Scientist writes.

At 8:25 p.m. Moscow time on Sunday, drillers hit lake water at a depth of 12,355 feet (3,766 meters)—making them the first ever to probe a subglacial lake, according to a statement provided by Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.

Sergey Bulat of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, and colleagues have now analysed the water – contaminated with some drilling fluid – that froze onto the drill bit at a depth of 3714 metres. He counted cells and looked for traces of DNA.

In preliminary results, reported at last week's 12th European Workshop on Astrobiology in Stockholm, Sweden, Bulat says there were only about 10 cells in every millilitre. There was also DNA from four species of bacteria, three of which were known to exist in the drilling fluid. The fourth was able to degrade the hydrocarbons within fluid to release energy, suggesting it had adapted to life inside the fluid.

Bulat thinks none of the bacteria came from the lake.

The project to probe the Great Lake-size water body, which has been entombed in ice for 25 million years, has been the centerpiece of the Russian Antarctic program.

Subglacial lakes may open a new window onto our planet, for example, by offering new insights into climate history or revealing previously unknown life-forms.

The jury is still out
John Priscu, an American Antarctica researcher working to reach other subglacial lakes, says the fact that the Russians haven't found anything so far isn't surprising.

"It's based on ice found on their drill, so it's a very contaminated sample. Secondly, when you take liquid water and freeze it, there's a partitioning—99 percent of the impurities, including microorganisms, are not being incorporated into the ice," he says. "The verdict is still out. We really need to go into the lake and sample it properly with sterile instruments."

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