Science has shown time and time again that even when faced with seemingly unlivable conditions, life finds a way. Though cloaked in darkness for nearly 3000 years, 13 degrees below freezing, and swimming in water 7 times saltier than the ocean, the waters of Lake Vida in East Antarctica harbor living specimens of previously undocumented species of bacteria.
The Vida microbial bacteria previously lived beneath 27 meters of ice, in total darkness, and are believed to survive by metabolizing hydrogen and oxides of nitrogen that exist abundantly in Vida’s briny, oxygen-free water. The possibility that extraterrestrial life might exist in a similarly extreme environment raises the potential of life on Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa.
‘Lake Vida is a model of what happens when you try to freeze a lake solid, and this is the same fate that any lakes on Mars would have gone through as the planet turned colder from a watery past,’ says Peter Doran of the University of Illinois, Chicago. ‘Any Martian water bodies that did form would have gone through this Vida stage before freezing solid, entombing the evidence of the past ecosystem.’
The research team who published the paper are a collaborative effort from the Desert Research Institute, The University of Illinois at Chicago, NASA Ames, University of Colorado, Boulder, JPL, and several other contributing researchers from institutions in the US and Australia.
Similar research is currently being conducted by drilling into frozen lakes at Vostok and Ellsworth, several kilometers beneath the ice, where sunlight has not reached the sealed lakes for millions of years.
A final passage from the conclusions of the published paper offer hope for other teams in search of life in extreme environments:
We contend that metabolism in this encapsulated brine ecosystem may last for a prolonged period, well in excess of its ∼2,800 y of existence.
Research of this nature demonstrates that the human preconditions for life and microbial preconditions for life may exist in dramatically different paradigms, placing renewed attention on the subsurface ocean believed to exist on Europa.
‘We can use these cultivated organisms to better understand the physical or chemical extremes they can tolerate that might be relevant to other icy worlds such as Europa,’ said co-research leader Alison Murray from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. Murray is now investigating further by growing some of the extracted cells in a lab.