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Fish-eye view of lake floor.
Photo Credit: Alberto Behar, JPL/ASU; underwater camera funded by NSF/NASA
The first view of the bottom of subglacial Lake Whillans. Soft lake sediments crumble as the WISSARD underwater camera touches the bottom. The area viewed in the image is about 0.15 meters (six inches) across. Samples from the lake water suggest life exists in the shallow lake.

Life under the ice

WISSARD team discovers evidence that bacteria live in Lake Whillans

It’s life. But is it life as we know it?

That question will be answered in the months ahead, but it appears that the first evidence that something lives in a lake covered by nearly a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica emerged at the end of January. Scientists analyzed the first samples of water only hours after bottles containing the cloudy lake liquid had been winched to the surface on Jan. 29.

Doug Fox, a journalist embedded with the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) External Non-U.S. government site project, reported from the field for Discovery magazine that “when lake water was viewed under a microscope, cells were seen: their tiny bodies glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye. It was the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake.”

In a field report dated Jan. 29, the science team had written that “respiratory enzymatic assays have provided the first evidence that the lake water microorganisms we observed with microscopy are viable.”

A cone surrounds a hole in the ice.
Photo Credit: Alberto Behar, JPL/ASU; underwater camera funded by NSF/NASA
The borehole as viewed through the germicidal UV collar that helps prevent contamination of the subglacial environment in order to recover clean samples from subglacial Lake Whillans. The collar is about 1.5 meters across.

Further experiments were planned at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station External U.S. government site to verify results from the initial, on-site experiments. More complete analyses will happen back in the United States from samples prepared at the field camp, located on the other side of the Texas-sized Ross Ice Shelf from McMurdo.

Fox cautioned in his report that additional tests will be needed to show that the cells actually grow because “dead cells can sometimes show up under a microscope with DNA-sensitive staining. And weeks or months will pass before it is known whether these cells represent known types of microbes, or something never seen before.”

The exploration of the subglacial lake, one of nearly 400 known to exist under Antarctica’s massive ice sheets, may provide new insights into how life exists in extreme environments.

Scientists are also studying the subglacial system, located about 800 meters under the ice sheet, to learn how water below influences glacial movement. And sediment samples from the lake floor could provide details about the geologic and climactic history of the region.

A vial contains dirty-looking water.
Photo Credit: WISSARD
A first glance at the waters of Subglacial Lake Whillans. The light brown color is due to suspended particles in the water.

Scientists and drillers operating a custom-made hotwater drill worked around the clock for four days to recover water and sediment samples from subglacial Lake Whillans. The effort was the culmination of a decade of international and national planning. It had taken more than three years to plan and execute the WISSARD project itself with more than $10 million in grants from the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site.

“We were able to address almost all of our science goals for the season,” the team wrote in its final field report on Feb. 1. “The data and samples collected have provided us with a glimpse of the Antarctic subglacial world. We have no doubts that our results will transform the way we view Antarctica and pave the way for future national and international subglacial research efforts.”

NSF-funded research in this story: John Priscu, Mark Skidmore and Andrew Mitchel, Montana State University, Award No. 0838933 External U.S. government site; Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California-Santa Cruz, Award Nos. 0839142, 0838947 External U.S. government site; Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, Northern Illinois University, Award Nos. 0839107, 0839059 External U.S. government site; Ross Virginia and Jill Mikucki, Dartmouth College, Award No. 0838896 External U.S. government site; Brent Christner, Louisiana State University, Award No. 0838941 External U.S. government site; Jeffrey Severinghaus and Helen Fricker, University of California-San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Award No. 0838885 External U.S. government site; Robert Jacobel, Saint Olaf College, Award Nos. 0838855, 0838854 External U.S. government site; Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Pennsylvania State University, Award No. 0838763, 0838764 External U.S. government site; Susan Schwartz, Andrew Fisher and Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California-Santa Cruz, Award No. 1043784 External U.S. government site; and Alberto Behar, Arizona State University, Award No. 1142123 External U.S. government site.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs