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Antarctic Lake Vostok, Sealed Under Ice For 15 Million Years, Teeming With Over 3,500 Types Of Life--Scientists Previously Thought Sterile

By Staff Writer | July 08, 2013 06:12 PM EDT

 

The Antarctic lake Vostok, an underground lake buried beneath miles of ice, may have fish. Scientists are shocked to find out that in the middle of the frozen tundra, the subglacial lake has an astonishing amount of biodiversity.

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Surprising new research shows that the Antarctic lake Vostok teems with life. Many scientists thought that due to the extreme conditions, Lake Vostoc would be sterile-but it holds DNA from about 3,507 organisms.

Many of the bacteria were from "animal commensals, mutualists and pathogens... including those associated with annelids, sea anemones, brachiopods, tardigrades and fish."

Astonishingly, the team also found similar matches to bacteria that thrive in heat, such as around volcanic hydrothermal vents. If vents like the ones on ocean floors lay under Vostok, they could "provide sources of energy and nutrients vital for organisms living in the lake", the team writes in PloS One.

This astonishing find suggests that there may be life in other extreme environments, such as on other planets like Jupiter or Mars.

"We found much more complexity than anyone thought," a scientist who worked on the study, Scott Rogers, said.

"It really shows the tenacity of life, and how organisms can survive in places where a couple dozen years ago we thought nothing could survive.

"The bounds on what is habitable and what is not are changing."

The majority of the organisms were bacteria, but even those were largely species that are heretofore unknown.  The glacial ice sheet also yielded other single celled organisms and multicellular organisms, including some from fungi.

The Russian scientists who drilled the lake also think it may hold fish.

Over 15 million years ago, Lake Vostok was covered with ice, and it's now 12,000 feet below the surface of the South Pole, creating not just cold temperature but a large amount of pressure.

"Ghost" lakes like the Antarctic lake Vostok are kept in a liquid state by heat rising from the rockbed below and from the pressure of all the ice pushing down from above.

Lake Vostok has been isolated from the rest of the world for 15 million years. Many of the DNA species found were new and may belong to new species entirely.

Dr. Rogers and his colleagues wrote: "The sequences suggest that a complex environment might exist in Lake Vostok."

They added, "Over 35 million years ago, Lake Vostok was open to the atmosphere and was surrounded by a forested ecosystem. At that time, the lake, which might have been a marine bay, probably contained a complex network of organisms.

"As recently as 15 million years ago, portions of the lake were ice free at least part of the time. During these times, organisms were likely being deposited in the lake.

And, he says, all this lent to an amazing array of life in the Antarctic lake Vostoc. "While the current conditions are different than earlier in its history, the lake seems to have maintained a surprisingly diverse community of organisms.

 

 

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