Half a mile beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, deep within and underground lake, scientists have discovered a diverse ecosystem of mineral-eating, single-celled organisms that managed to survive, and thrive, despite the fact that they have never seen the light of the sun.
There were earlier claims of similar microbes that were drawn from a different Antarctic lake, said the authors of the new study published in Nature, but these claims were controversial due to the fact that the samples had been contaminated, a problem which was avoided with these most recent samples thanks to especially careful drilling techniques.
“It’s the real deal,” said Peter Doran, an Earth scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “There was news that they found life early this year, but a bunch of us were waiting for the peer reviewed paper to come out before we jumped for joy.”
This finding has concluded an effort that spanned a few years to confirm the presence of life below the coldest, driest continent on Earth. The scientific community considers the implications of this study nothing short of profound, potentially reshaping how medications are made and even human understanding of how life survives in other extreme environments, be they in Earth or in outer space.
“Our report in Nature is indeed the first time the presence of life has been confirmed beneath the Antarctic ice sheet,” says John Priscu, chief scientist for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, or WISSARD, which made the discovery. “There’s unknown organisms, pharmaceuticals we can search out, food preservatives, things of that nature. There’s a lot of stuff down there, a lot of biological material we never knew about.”
Read more about the story at Smithsonian.