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Antarctic expedition discovers unknown bacteria


Lake Vostok as seen by satellite (Courtesy NASA)
Lake Vostok as seen by satellite (Courtesy NASA)

Kevan Karanjia, Staff Writer

March 9, 2013 — In what could be the clearest example yet of life possibly existing in extreme conditions like Mars, a group of Russian scientists have discovered a new life form deep under the Antarctic ice.

Lake Vostok is the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica, its existence was confirmed only in 1996 (Courtesy NSF)
Lake Vostok is the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica, its existence was confirmed only in 1996 (Courtesy NSF)

An expedition of Russian scientists have discovered a new life form deep under the Antarctic that is believed to be 14 million years old.

The team have been digging under the ice into the sub-glacial Lake Vostok, and made it to a depth of 3,700 metres.

Scientists made the discovery after analyzing water that froze onto the end of the drill bit used to bore through to Vostok.

The drill bit had to be specially sterilized in order to avoid any contamination before drilling began.

Sub-glacial lakes form a network of close to 400 beneath the ice cap - Vostok is the biggest.

Vostok could have supported life as sub-glacial lakes trap the Earth's geothermal heat.

Antarctica is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, temperatures can drop below -60C
Antarctica is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, temperatures can drop below -60C

More samples are still needed to confirm the discovery but scientists have never before seen this form of life.

"After excluding all known contaminants, bacterial DNA was found that does not match any known species in world databases," said Sergei Bulat of the St Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute to a Russian news agency.

The newly discovered bacteria's DNA was less than 86 percent similar to previously existing forms.

Bulat also noted "In terms of work with DNA this is basically zero. A level of 90 percent usually means that the organism is unknown."

More samples have been collected from deeper in the borehole and are expected to arrive in St. Petersburg by boat in May.

The discovery is particularly exciting for researchers who believe that life might have one day existed on Mars, or Jupiter's moon Europa, and could be found today in sub-glacial lakes beneath ice caps.

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