British Scientists Look for Life in Extreme Environment

New Wave Media

December 7, 2012

  • Antarctica drilling map
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  • Antarctica drilling map Antarctica drilling map
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British scientists recently began an expedition to search for life in Lake Windermere, a stretch of water in Antarctica. Engineers and scientists set up camp on an ice sheet in West Antarctic. The team will use a sterile hot water drill to bore down to the subglacial Lake Ellsworth and retrieve samples of water and sediments that may have been isolated from the rest of the world for a million years. Scientists are interested to find if life can withstand such harsh conditions. If there were life to be found, it would have evolved in isolation for more than 100,000 years. The answers will further our understanding of life on Earth, and inform searches for life elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the ice-capped ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa. "Extreme environments tell you what constraints there are on life," said Mike Bentley, a geologist on the team at Durham University. "If we find a particular set of environments where life can't exist, that creates some bookends: it tells you about the limits of life." There are over 360 subglacial lakes in Antarctica including Lake Ellsworth. Organisms living in these conditions would have few nutrients, complete darkness and extreme pressure. Scientists also hope to discover when the overlying glacier waxed and waned and how that changed the local environment. The team will break through the surface and will then have 24 hours to sterilize the entrance with ultraviolet light. Equipment will then be lowered into the water to collect samples before the hole freezes again. The expedition team will spend six weeks on the ice in temperatures of -15 to -20C. "It's pretty exciting to have to do all your science first time within a 24-hour or so window with no chance of a second go," said Dr. Matt Mowiem, who developed submersible technology for the project at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. The scientists will collect water samples from various depths of the lake, which is 150 meters deep, by lowering probes that stand nearly six meters tall and weigh 400kg. The first samples are expected on 18 December. The team has two designs of corer to grab sediments from the lakebed.


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