Deep in the Antarctic (Credit: NSF)

Recent efforts to extract a water sample from the ancient sub-surface Antarctic Lake Vostok seem to be yielding some promising results. Russian scientists now claim detection of previously 'unclassified' microbial organisms.

On January 10th this year Russian scientists reported that they had extracted an ice core from over 3,600 meters depth - containing what was expected to be water forced up under pressure into the borehole from Vostok before freezing solid.

It could be the first time this water has seen sunlight in millions of years, and perhaps tens of thousands of years since it mingled with anything other than the rest of the lake. At the top of the scientific to-do list was to find out if anything lives in Vostok, leading an existence as isolated as its water.

A little over two weeks later a US funded team drilled into Lake Whillans - a shallower, far less extensive body of water under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. In short order the US team announced that they were finding microbial life, bacteria, in their samples of water and sediment. It seemed that the hunt was warming up for what could be some of the most extreme organisms anywhere.

Vostok is perhaps the greater prize though, and eyes have been on Russia waiting for word on whether anything has indeed come up from the pitch black depths of the coldest place on Earth.

Now, through Russian state media, it has been announced that preliminary examinations of the water indeed reveals signs of life. Not just any life though, the message is that this is microbial life of an 'unclassified' nature. To quote the Russian news agency RIA Novosti:

“After excluding all known contaminants…we discovered bacterial DNA that does not match any known species listed in global databanks. We call it unidentified and 'unclassified' life,” (Sergei) Bulat said.

It's being reported that seven samples from the extract ice core show signs of this bacterial DNA. While the technical details are not yet available it seems that when the scientists (including Sergei Bulat of the Laboratory of Eukaryote Genetics at the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute.) compared this DNA to a database of known species they found no clear match. The closest they could come was about 86% similarity, which is far enough off to suggest a new species.

Obviously we'll need to wait to see the details. Phrases like 'bacterial DNA' are pretty vague - are they looking at things like the ubiquitous 16s rRNA, or some other sequence selections typically used for metagenomic analysis? Do they have cells under a microscope?

It looks to be exciting news though. Decades of hard work to reach one of the most alien places on Earth may actually be revealing lifeforms we have not knowingly encountered before. It doesn't really get better than this!

I will update this post as more information comes in.


The bottom of the world (Reuters)