The secret to how life could survive on alien planets may be buried within a frozen Antarctic lake. Resilient microbes that researchers think may contain those very secrets have been hidden away for over 100,000 years beneath the ice, but they've now come within scientists reach as the frozen sheets begin to retreat due to warming climates. What was once a quarter-mile-thick frozen block separating researchers from Antarctica's Lake Hodgson has now become a mere 10 or 13-foot covering. The British Antarctic Survey says that this change has allowed its researchers to drill through the ice to finally gain access to the 300-foot-deep lake.
"It indicates that life can exist and potentially thrive."
Researchers drilled mud out of the bottom of the lake. While layers higher up in the mud contained organisms that still inhabit the harsh Antarctic environment, about 10.5 feet farther down were the remnants of ancient microbes. The researchers believe that these microbes can show us how it's possible for organisms to live in environments that we would normally consider entirely uninhabitable. "What was surprising was the high biomass and diversity we found," David Pearce, lead author of a paper on the team's findings, published Friday in Diversity, says in a statement. "This ... indicates that life can exist and potentially thrive in environments we would consider too extreme."
Lake Hodgson's environment is so inhospitable that among the organisms found there were types of bacteria known as extremophiles, which — like the name makes it sound — have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments. The British Antarctic Survey says some extremophiles use chemical methods in order to stay alive in environments that expose them to too much or too little oxygen. "The fact these organisms have survived in such a unique environment could mean they have developed in unique ways which could lead to exciting discoveries for us," Pearce says. "This is the early stage and we now need to do more work to further investigate these life forms.”