Diversity Of Life In Antarctica's Hidden Lake Vostok

9 July, 2013

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Follow us: - Lake Vostok, the largest deep sub-ice body of water on our planet, discovered in the last 100 years begins to reveal some of its deepest secrets.

It's an extreme - dark and cold - environment, with 50 times higher oxygen levels than those found in ordinary freshwater lakes on Earth.

Scientists had considered it a possible model for other planets, a place where nothing could live.

Lake Vostok. Sources: NOAA, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Marc Kaufman and Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post

Through DNA and RNA sequencing, a team of scientists has revealed a surprising variety of life forms living and reproducing in this most extreme of environments.

Most scientists have believed that Lake Vostok Vostok is completely inhospitable to life, and some of them thought it might even be sterile.

However, after two years of computer analysis, the final results showed that Lake Vostok contains a diverse set of microbes, as well as some multicellular organisms.

Dr. Scott Rogers, a Bowling Green State University professor of biological sciences, and his colleagues analyzed ice cores obtained from the basin of Lake Vostok, and were able to identify approximately 3,507 organisms - a surprising variety of life forms, living and reproducing in this most extreme of environments.

"We found much more complexity than anyone thought," Rogers said. "It really shows the tenacity of life, and how organisms can survive in places where a couple dozen years ago we thought nothing could survive."

The team identified thousands of bacteria, including some that are commonly found in the digestive systems of fish, crustaceans and annelid worms, in addition to fungi and two species of archaea, or single-celled organisms that tend to live in extreme environments.

Lake Vostock schematic. Image credit: Rob Cooper and Thomas Durante

Other species they identified are associated with habitats of lake or ocean sediments.

Psychrophiles, or organisms that live in extreme cold, were found, along with heat-loving thermophiles, which suggests the presence of hydrothermal vents deep in the lake.

Credit: M. Studinger/LDEO

"The presence of marine and freshwater species supports the hypothesis that the lake once was connected to the ocean, and that the freshwater was deposited in the lake by the overriding glacier", Rogers said.

"Many of the species we sequenced are what we would expect to find in a lake," Rogers said. "Most of the organisms appear to be aquatic (freshwater), and many are species that usually live in ocean or lake sediments."

Before 35 million years ago, Antarctica had a temperate climate and was inhabited by a diverse assemblage of plants and animals.

About 34 million years ago, Rogers said, a "huge drop in temperature occurred" and ice covered the lake, when it was probably still connected to the Southern Ocean.

This lowered sea level by about 300 feet, which could have cut off Lake Vostok from the ocean. The ice cover was intermittent until a second big plunge in temperature took place 14 million years ago, and sea level d ropped even farther.

Paper is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

See also: Higher Life-Form Discovered Beneath The Antarctic Ice Shocks Scientists

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