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Giant Subglacial Lake Could Hold Ancient Lifeforms

Like “Europa Report,” but real life.
Lake Vostok, Antarctica. Image: Wikipedia/NASA

In 2013, Russian scientists had the world waiting with bated breath as they bored through two miles of Antarctic ice to make contact with the continent's largest subglacial lake.

The body of water, Lake Vostok, was thought to have remained undisturbed for up to 25 million years, and its potential to yield ancient, never-before-seen lifeforms was believed by everyone hoping to discover aliens right here on Earth.


The team of glacial archaeologists reported finding more than 3,500 different DNA sequences, including bacteria, eukaryotes, and archaea—and, according to the Russian scientists, organisms that didn't match anything in the known gene bank.

It would have been exciting news, except that some researchers openly doubted the project's methodology and results. But this week, scientists at the European Geosciences Union announced the discovery of another massive lake under the Antarctic ice sheet, according to New Scientist, providing a new chance for international researchers to study organisms from a subglacial body of water.

Only slightly smaller than Lake Vostok, this new body of water has researchers excited because of its close proximity to an existing research station, making it much easier to study.

The team first suspected the lake's existence when satellite imagery revealed grooves on top of the ice that looked similar to the terrain above known subglacial lakes and channels.

"We've seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1000-kilometre-long channels, and there's a relatively large subglacial lake there too," Martin Siegert, a member of the team that discovered the lake, told New Scientist.

The wide, ribbon-shaped lake is spread across the eastern quadrant of Antarctica, and perhaps once fed into the Southern Ocean tens of millions of years ago. Scientists aren't positive the lake exists, but there are ongoing efforts to collect additional data on the region. According to Siegert, collaborators from China and the US have flown over the site with radars capable of penetrating the ice—much like the way Lake Vostok was discovered—and should be able to verify whether the lake exists come May this year.

"It's the last un-researched part of Antarctica, so it's very exciting news, but it's still tentative pending full confirmation," team member Bryn Hubbard told New Scientist.

So what happens if this lake is the real deal? The glaciologists are already discussing potential explorations under the ice. Because the alleged lake is so close to a research station, says Siegert, it should be relatively easy to proceed with similar investigations as those conducted at Lake Vostok. Likewise, this team of researchers is also keen to discover new lifeforms that could reveal how life on earth—and other planets—got its start.

There have been many efforts to reap life from depths of the South Pole, and past studies have confirmed that Antarctica's biodiversity is as rich as the world's deep oceans. One group of researchers reported finding 130,000 cells in each millilitre of subglacial lake water. But even if Lake Vostok and future explorations fail to discover any "alien" lifeforms, the chance to peep at ecosystems that haven't changed in millions of years is thrilling.

Big things come from small beginnings, and in the most unexplored corner of the planet, the discovery of even a single microbe is huge.