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Antarctica: Life beneath the ice

Antarctic peak.

Science mission finds microbial life beneath Antarctic ice sheets. bberwyn photo.

Simple organisms process basic elements to survive

Staff Report

FRISCO —Tiny organisms living beneath the vast Antarctic ice fields can convert ammonium and methane into the energy required for growth, surviving in one of the most unlikely environments on Earth, according to scientists who studied a subsurface lake that hasn’t seen sunlight for millions of years.

“We were able to prove unequivocally to the world that Antarctica is not a dead continent,” said Montana State University professor John Priscu, the chief scientist of the U.S. project called WISSARD that sampled the sub-ice environment.

Lead author Brent Christner said, “It’s the first definitive evidence that there’s not only life, but active ecosystems underneath the Antarctic ice sheet, something that we have been guessing about for decades. With this paper, we pound the table and say, ‘Yes, we were right.'”

Priscu, who has been studying the world’s polar regions for 20 years, has long predicted that there is life under the ice sheets. Five years ago, he published a manuscript where he predicted that the Antarctic subglacial environment would be the planet’s largest wetland, one not dominated by the red-winged blackbirds and cattails of typical wetland regions in North America, but by microorganisms that mine minerals in rocks at subzero temperatures to obtain the energy that fuels their growth.

Priscu said he was excited by some of the details of the Antarctic find, particularly how the microbes function without sunlight at subzero temperatures and the fact that evidence from DNA sequencing revealed that the dominant organisms are archaea. Archaea is one of three domains of life, with the others being Bacteria and Eukaryote.

Many of the subglacial archaea use the energy in the chemical bonds of ammonium to fix carbon dioxide and drive other metabolic processes. Another group of microorganisms uses the energy and carbon in methane to make a living. According to Priscu, the source of the ammonium and methane is most likely from the breakdown of organic matter that was deposited in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago when Antarctica was warmer and the sea inundated West Antarctica.

He also noted that, as Antarctica continues to warm, vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, will be liberated into the atmosphere enhancing climate warming.

The U.S. team also proved that the microorganisms originated in Lake Whillans and weren’t introduced by contaminated equipment, Priscu said. Skeptics of his previous studies of Antarctic ice have suggested that his group didn’t actually discover microorganisms, but recovered microbes they brought in themselves.

“We went to great extremes to ensure that we did not contaminate one of the most pristine environments on our planet while at the same time ensuring that our samples were of the highest integrity,” Priscu said.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project officially began in 2009 with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Planning to drill again this austral summer in a new Antarctic location, Priscu said WISSARD was the first large-scale multidisciplinary effort to directly examine the biology of an Antarctic subglacial environment. The Antarctic Ice Sheet covers an area 1 ½ times the size of the United States and contains 70 percent of Earth’s freshwater, and any significant melting can drastically increase sea level.

Lake Whillans, one of more than 200 known lakes beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet and the primary lake in the WISSARD study, fills and drains about every three years. The river that drains Lake Whillans flows under the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the size of France, and feeds the Southern Ocean, where it can provide nutrients for life and influence water circulation patterns.

 

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