Scientists discover microbes that survive without oxygen under Antarctic glacier

April 17th, 2009 - 12:43 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, April 17 (ANI): A new research has led to the discovery of unusual microbial life under an inland Antarctic glacier, a place where cold, darkness and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive.

The microbes were found in an unmapped reservoir of briny liquid chemically similar to sea water, but buried under an inland Antarctic glacier.

After sampling and analyzing the outflow from below the Taylor Glacier, an outlet glacier of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in the otherwise ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, researchers believe that, lacking enough light to make food through photosynthesis, the microbes have adapted over the past 1.5 million years to manipulate sulfur and iron compounds to survive.

The microbes also are remarkably similar in nature to species found in marine environments, leading to the conclusion that the populations under the glacier are the remnants of a larger population of microbes that once occupied a fjord or sea that received sunlight.

Many of these marine lineages likely declined, while others adapted to the changing conditions when the Taylor Glacier advanced, sealing off the system under a thick ice cap.

The Dry Valleys are completely devoid of animals and complex plants and scientists consider them to be one of the Earth’s most extreme deserts.

Mikucki and her colleagues based their analysis on samples taken at the ominously, but aptly named Blood Falls, a water-fall-like feature at the edge of the glacier that flows irregularly, but often has a strikingly bright red appearance in stark contrast to the icy background.

Mikucki and her colleagues argue that the creatures that survive under the Taylor Glacier are both far more exotic and far more adaptable than the early explorers thought.

Because the outflow from the glacier follows no clear pattern, it took a number of years to obtain the samples needed to conduct an analysis.

Finally, she obtained a sample of an extremely salty and clear liquid for analysis.

“When I started running the chemical analysis on it, there was no oxygen,” she said. “That was this when got really interesting, it was a real ‘eureka’ moment,” she added.

Further genetic analysis suggests that of the relatively small numbers of microorganisms found in the brine, “the majority of these organisms are from marine lineages,” she said.

In other words, microorganisms more similar to those found in an ocean than on land, but capable of surviving without the food and light sources available in the open ocean. (ANI)

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