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It's Alive! Microbes Discovered Deep Beneath Antarctic Ice

Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, teems with microscopic life. Tiny organisms dwell on the ice and live inside glaciers, and now, researchers confirm, a rich microbial ecosystem persists underneath the thick ice sheet, where no sunlight has been felt for millions of years.

Nearly 4,000 species of microbes inhabit Lake Whillans, which lies beneath 2,625 feet (800 meters) of ice in West Antarctica, researchers reported Wednesday (Aug. 20) in the journal Nature. These are the first organisms ever retrieved from a subglacial Antarctic lake.

"We found not just that things are alive, but that there's an active ecosystem," said lead study author Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "If you had to think up what would be the coolest scenario for an ecosystem in Antarctica, you couldn't make this up." [ See Photos of Lake Whillans' Drilling Project & Microbial Life ]

Antarctica has nearly 400 lakes trapped under its ice sheet. Some of them — like Lake Whillans — are connected by rivers and streams. Others are deep, isolated basins like Lake Vostok, where drillers have yet to successfully recover uncontaminated water samples. The new Lake Whillans discovery raises scientists' hopes that these other hidden waterways also carry life.

Image: A microbe with attached sediment particle from Lake Whillans
A coccoid-shaped microbe with an attached sediment particle from subglacial Lake Whillans. Trista Vick-Majors

"This is a landmark paper for the polar sciences," said Martyn Tranter, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study. "This paper is bound to stimulate further calls for subglacial lake research."

Christner's team would like to track down the origin of Lake Whillans' life — whether it arrived from elsewhere, brought in by ice or rivers, or was trapped in place, in the old ocean sediments.

The findings at Lake Whillans also provide a unique glimpse into how life may survive on other planets, such as within Mars' ice cap or beneath the icy exterior of Jupiter's moon Europa. "I think this does strengthen the case for finding life on icy bodies," Christner said.

— Becky Oskin, LiveScience

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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