Scientists melt million year old ice in search for ancient microbes

November 27th, 2007 - 3:04 pm ICT by admin  

Washington, Nov 27 (ANI): Scientists have melted ice dating back to a million year from an ancient lake two miles beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica, in search of microorganisms.
The research team that thawed the ice is from the University of Delaware (UD) and University of California.
The scientists will now examine the eons-old water for microorganisms, and then through novel genomic techniques, try to figure out how these tiny, living ‘time capsules’ survived the ages in total darkness, in freezing cold and without food and energy from the sun.
The segments of ice were cut from an 11,866-foot ice core drilled in 1998 through a joint effort involving Russia, France and the United States. The core was taken from approximately two miles below the surface of Antarctica and 656 feet (200 meters) above the surface of Lake Vostok and has since been stored at -35 degrees C at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver.
In the case of Lake Vostok, scientists speculate that it stays in a liquid state underneath miles of ice due to one of the Earth’s natural ‘furnaces’ - hydrothermal vents. Superheated water erupts from these cracks in the seafloor which form where the plates that form the Earth’s crust pull apart.
“This ice was once water in the lake that refroze onto the bottom of the ice sheet,” said Craig Cary, professor of marine biosciences at UD. “We have no direct samples of the lake itself, only this indirect sampling of the refrozen ice above it because drilling into the lake without taking extensive precautions could lead to the lake’s contamination,” he added.
“It was very exciting to see the Vostok ice, knowing how old it is and how much it took to get that ice to the lab,” Smith said. “The ice core itself was incredibly clear and glasslike, reflecting the light like a prism,” said Julie Smith from UD’s College of Marine and Earth Studies
Although other scientific projects have identified the microorganisms living in the Vostok water, they have not revealed what these little one-celled organisms do or how they have become adapted to an environment that is eternally dark, cold and so isolated that food and energy sources are likely rare and hard to come by.
“This research is important because it will give us insight into how microbes can survive in a very energy-limited system,” said Smith. “Most of our planet is permanently cold and dark, so it makes sense that we should study how life exists under these conditions. In addition, enzymes produced by these microorganisms may be useful in industrial applications down the road,” he added.
The Vostok water contains between 10-100 microbes per milliliter.
“We hope that by being so isolated for millions of years, these microorganisms from Vostok will be able to tell us about their life and conditions through the ages,” Cary said. (ANI)

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