First there was the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Now, we have the Very Cold War—a race between Russian and American scientists to find new life forms in the frozen, sub-glacial lakes of Antarctica that may (or may not) harbor new forms of microbes never seen above ground in the last 25 million years.
American scientists announced in early February they'd found life in Lake Whillans, one of several lakes hundreds of feet beneath the Antarctic ice that research teams from Russia, the United States and Great Britain have been attempting to study since 2009.
The announcement from the WISSARD research team, however, came with caveats—the Americans said that, while they'd found microbes in the lake water samples that had been carefully extracted, they needed further study to see precisely what types of microbes they were.
While preliminary and not yet confirmed, the Americans said it would be the first time that life had been discovered in the previously hidden lakes beneath the ice and glaciers in Antarctica. The researchers sent the samples off to the lab for a thorough DNA analysis to determine what they'd found.
How the bacteria might have metabolized energy in an environment that has no oxygen or nutrients—Antarctica's sub-glacial lakes have been sealed from outside forces potentially for millions of years—is a mystery.
But if life can live there in these Antarctic lakes against seemingly insurmountable odds, then it might also lurk in the lakes of moons on other planets (like Jupiter's moon, Europa, or Saturn's moon, Enceladus, both of which are believed to have large lakes or even oceans underneath their icy surfaces.) For this reason alone, the announcement sent chills through a scientific establishment that's been waiting for years for confirmation of life forms in these hidden Antarctic lakes.
"The data and samples collected have provided us with a glimpse of the Antarctic sub-glacial world," the WISSARD team wrote in a blog post on Feb. 1 from the field. "We have no doubts that our results will transform the way we view Antarctica and pave the way for future national and international sub-glacial research efforts."
Then, last week, a Russian team that had been racing to find microbes at another, better known sub-glacial lake in Antarctica—Lake Vostok—announced that they, too, had found bacteria. But they took it a step further, and announced that they'd found a new life form never before seen on Earth.
The Russian team—pressed hard by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to match the American research efforts in Antarctica—announced at an international conference that they'd found a wholly new type of bacteria.
The Lake Vostok effort is a point of scientific pride, much like Sputnik was once a similar point of pride during the space race, for Russia. The research team gave Putin a sample of the Lake Vostok water last year in a highly publicized ceremony in Russia.
The bacteria was an "unclassified and unidentified" life form that was unlike anything on Earth, according to Sergei Bulat from the genetics laboratory at the St. Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics.
"After putting aside all possible elements of contamination, DNA was found that did not coincide with any of the well-known types in the global database," Bulat was quoted as saying in a report March 7 by the RIA Novosti news agency.
The new bacteria's DNA was less than 86 percent similar to any previously existing life forms, Bulat said, making it a novel life form never before seen. There was no other form of bacteria on Earth even close, Bulat said. So the Russians had found the very first new life form in Antarctica after all!
"If this had been found on Mars, everyone would have undoubtedly said there is life on Mars," Bulat told RIA Novosti. "But this is bacteria from Earth."
Not so fast, said an American researcher. And others quickly piled on too. Turns out they are concerned the Lake Vostok samples were compromised and contaminated by the kerosene used in the effort to drill into the lake in the first place.
"They really need to stop playing around with frozen lake water bathed in kerosene and get a clean bulk water sample," John Priscu, a glaciologist at Montana State University in Bozeman who led the American expedition in January to Lake Whillans, told Nature magazine earlier this week. Priscu also argued that perhaps as much as 50 percent of the Lake Vostok samples had been polluted either by kerosene or even materials from the lab itself that was used to isolate the new life forms.
But the Russians fought back—defending their stake to the discovery of the first, new life form in the hidden lakes of Antarctica. Bulat told reporters that they'd carefully ruled out contaminants, and that they had, in fact, discovered a previously unknown and unclassified new life form.
The Russians may not have been the first to the moon but, according to Bulat, they were the first to find new life forms in Antarctica.
Sadly, all of this is familiar to scientists who must survive withering peer review before discoveries can actually be put to rest in the history books. So, until then, the Very Cold War over whether new life forms exist beneath the frozen ice and glaciers in Antarctica will continue.