Buried Antarctic Lake Shows First Signs Of Life

WISSARD lake whillans expedition
WISSARD team traversing Antarctica.

[credit provider=”Marcy Beitch, WISSARD” url=”%EF%BB%BF”]

On Monday, U.S. scientists drilling into Antarctic Lake Whillans announced that they have tapped into the liquid water of the lake and taken up their first samples.And now, Discover Magazine writer Douglas Fox announced on The Crux that these samples contain signs of living bacteria, the first seen from a subglacial lake.

The team, Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) has been drilling into Lake Whillans, which is buried 2,600 feet below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Liquid water samples were first removed from the lake Monday, Jan. 28, at 6:20 a.m, Fox reports.

They squirted the lake water into dishes of nutrients and food, hoping something would grow, a test that will take weeks. 

They also performed a much quicker test — they dyed the water, labelling any genetic material (DNA) that was inside with a marker that glows green. And green it did glow. They could see individual cells in the water glowing green with the dye, Fox reports. More intensive testing will follow to determine if these cells are alive, and if they are new types of microbes.

WISSARD lake whillans expedition
Headed out to Lake Whillans

[credit provider=”Marci Beitch, WISSARD”]

Multiple other teams, including one from Russia and one from Britain, are trying to tap into subglacial lakes that are even deeper down under the ice sheet. The British team is investigating Lake Ellsworth, and retrieved their first water samples in early December. But they had to abandon their drilling on Dec. 27, as the drilling was not going according to plan, an expedition scientist told The Guardian.

The Russian team is drilling into Lake Vostok. On Jan. 14 they retrieved their first liquid water samples. Preliminary testing of some frozen water they brought back on a drill bit didn’t show signs of life. Other reports indicate that the Vostok team found bacteria, but it matched bacteria found in kerosene and was probably contamination from the drilling, Fox says.

Another team from an expedition to a much younger, and easier to reach, Antarctic lake, Lake Vida, found evidence indicating that it is inhabited by special bacteria that has been isolated for more than 2,800 years, according to a study published in November.