First Lake Vostok Samples 'Lifeless,' But American Scientist Says That's Not Conclusive

Scientists say the first samples from the Antarctic lake were likely to be contaminated.

An intricate network of lakes and rivers below Antarctica's ice sheet could be home to lots of microbes churning out the greenhouse gas methane.
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The first samples from Lake Vostok, the subglacial Antarctic lake that had remained untouched for more than 15 million years, turned up a whole lot of nothing, according to an initial analysis by the Russian scientists who reached the lake. But that doesn't mean there isn't life that has developed in the lake, according to a prominent Antarctic scientist.

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A team of Russian scientists wowed the world earlier this year when, after more than 10 years, they had successfully drilled through more than 2.5 miles of ice to reach the lake. Scientists believed the lake might hold "extremophiles," organisms that can survive nearly impossible conditions. But the first analysis was "lifeless," according to Sergey Bulat, of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute.

John Priscu, an American Antarctica researcher working to reach other subglacial lakes, says the fact that the Russians haven't found anything so far isn't surprising.

"It's based on ice found on their drill, so it's a very contaminated sample. Secondly, when you take liquid water and freeze it, there's a partitioning—99 percent of the impurities, including microorganisms, are not being incorporated into the ice," he says. "The verdict is still out. We really need to go into the lake and sample it properly with sterile instruments."

Priscu says that anytime water is frozen, the ice remains relatively pure as microbes are forced out. "You can take a piece of sea ice and make a margarita out of it," he says. "They're looking at frozen lake water--most of what was in that water is not included in the ice matrix."

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The Russian team reached Vostok in early February, just before the weather became too cold to continue drilling. Exploration of Vostok and other Antarctic lakes will continue later this year, when scientists will have more time to get proper samples, Priscu says. "You've got to get away from the kerosene," used to bore through the ice, he adds.

"You can't tell what's in the lake with what's floating on top—I hope in the next year we'll have enough to come out with a conclusion," he says. "You really need to get into the bulk of the water. Most of the microbes will remain in the liquid, not the ice. It's interesting and exciting. We don't know what's down there yet."

Scientists say that if microorganisms survive in Vostok and other lakes far beneath Antarctica's surface, it's conceivable that similar lifeforms could survive in other extreme environments, such as on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, which is primarily covered in ice.

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.