Lake Vostok is the largest known subglacial lake in central Antarctica, though it’s been buried under 4 kilometers (nearly 2.5 miles) of ice for the past 15 million years. Because of the thickness of the ice above the water, some researchers theorize that any microbes in the lake might date back to a primordial time. Others hope the microbes that might be in the lake could lend them insight into the kinds of life forms that might be found on the icy planets of Mars and Jupiter. Samples of ice collected a few hundred feet above the lake have been shown to contain dormant colonies of microbes that are related to microbes found elsewhere in Antarctic soil.
In 1998, after 3 decades of drilling into the ice above the lake, Russian researchers stopped at a point just a few hundred feet from the lake’s surface to avoid possibly contaminating the pristine ecosystem. Their efforts yielded an ice core recording some 400,000 years of changes in Earth’s atmosphere and climate. Researchers now want to apply metagenomic and single cell sequencing techniques to study samples of microbes from a section of the ice core collected at 3,500 meters from the surface of the Antarctic ice where no light has penetrated for millennia. They hope to find out how ecosystems in these regions have adapted to the constant extreme cold and darkness. They also want to find out if the microbes have become more energy-efficient at sequestering carbon in these environments and what changes occurred in the organisms’ genomes to make this happen.
Principal Investigators: Phil Hugenholtz (DOE JGI)
Program: CSP 2009