Deep beneath the antarctic ice, scientists have discovered life in lakes sealed off from the world for millions of years. This discovery is monumental, and has important implications for astrobiology
On the bottom of our planet sits the Antarctic continent, draped in a 2000 meter thick ice covering millions of years old. Beneath this ice is solid ground, rivers and lakes, forever encased and cut off from the rest of the world. There is no light down there, and a crushing pressure 350 times of that on the surface. The lakes here have long been the subject of debate by biologists. Could there be life in a place so utterly desolate and cut off from all of what makes this planet hospitable? Scientists have finally managed to drill into one of these lakes, Lake Whillans, and have confirmed that yes, there is indeed life there.
Lake Whillans' location underneath the Ross Ice Shelf
Montana State University glaciologist John Priscu led the science team responsible for the discovery, announced via a phone interview that "It appears that there lies a large wetland ecosystem under Antarctica's ice sheet, with an active microbiology." The lake, which was just 2 meters deep at the drill site, was teeming with microbial life. Around 30 liters of water and eight 60 cm long samples of sediment were retrieved from the lake and studied under microscope, where the water was revealed to contain about 1000 bacteria per milliliter. This is roughly one tenth the number of microbes found in oceanic waters on earth.
At this time, the team will continue investigating the lake and researching the microbes further. DNA testing is a high priority and the team is very curious as to discover what characteristics, most likely very unique, have allowed a completely isolated ecosystem to survive on it's own in such a harsh environment.
Saturn's ice covered moon Enceladus with its thermal geysers. Conditions here may be similar to Lake Whillans
This discovery will naturally have an impact on our understanding of life on earth, but also has some very important implications for the possibilities of life outside our planet: The subglacial lake environment is namely very similar to conditions on several moons in the outer solar system, including Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moon Enceladus. Enceladus in particular is believed to have both a massive subglacial ocean, and mineral rich thermal vents similar to what you would find teeming with life in the depths of Earth's oceans. Now that life has now been proven to be possible in these conditions, the chances of alien life in the universe, let alone the solar system, may have increased a bit.