British scientists have reached beneath Antarctic ice and grown bacteria using samples pulled from a former subglacial lake.
The research, published in the journal Diversity, strengthens a growing body of evidence that life can exist in the most extreme environments -- with freezing cold, crushing pressure and utter darkness -- the kind of unfriendly conditions that could exist on other planets.
The 12.5-foot sample was pulled from the bottom of Lake Hodgson, a 306.4-foot-deep body of water that sat under more than 1,500 feet of ice at the end of the last ice age, around 10,500 years ago. Some of the sediments may be nearly 100,000 years old.
Scientists think the water in the 1.2-by-0.9-mile lake has been trapped in an underground cavity since before the last glacial maximum, or about 26,500 to 19,000 years ago. Today, that layer above the lake has melted to about 12 to 13 feet of ice.
Explorers from the British Antarctic Survey recently pulled ice cores from this and several other subglacial lakes. Analysis of samples from Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial lake in the world, turned up more than 3,500 distinct genetic fragments, signs that the lake could have been teeming with life, even in this unforgiving environment.
In this study, led by David Pearce at the University of Northumbria in England, researchers were able to culture 20 of the microbes they discovered, including Actinobacteria, a group of bacteria that also includes many common soil, freshwater and saltwater dwelling critters.
"Both the detection limits and the biodiversity found are encouraging," the authors wrote. "The generation of 20 cultures indicated the viability of at least a fraction of the microbes found in the Lake Hodgson sediment. So they are clearly distinct ecosystems with huge potential."
Such research could indicate that if life can thrive in such unforgiving environments, then perhaps it could also exist in extreme environments on other worlds, like Jupiter’s icy moon Europa or Saturn's "squirty" moon Enceladus.