Scientists hunt for microbes under Antarctica to understand habitats on Mars, moons

They announced their discovery of microbes in the subglacial lake in 2013, receiving worldwide attention.

An international team of scientists will begin the new year hunting for microbes and other living specimens in an unexplored lake far beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Led by polar scientist John Priscu of Montana State University in the US, a team of 45 scientists, drillers and support staff will drill 4,000 feet to the bottom of the ice sheet that covers Mercer Subglacial Lake about 370 miles from the South Pole.

The lake, which measures nearly 62 square miles, was discovered more than a decade ago through satellite images but has never before been explored.

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The Antarctic subglacial environment is a dynamic ecosystem where ice, water, and sediment form a web of complex interactions. The discipline of geomicrobiology, the study of the interaction between microorganisms and their physical environment, is critical to our research. Based on the WISSARD project's previous research at Subglacial Lake Whillans, we hypothesize that Mercer Subglacial Lake supports an ecosystem of microscopic organisms that exists without the presence of sunlight. Instead of photosynthesis, microbes in Antarctica's subglacial lakes survive through transforming organic matter such as relict organic carbon into energy through a process called chemolithoautotrophy. In three weeks, we will drill 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) into the ice to find out what’s in Mercer Subglacial Lake. What we find could help us to form better hypotheses about life on other planetary subglacial water systems, like on Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa.

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The expedition, known as SALSA (Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access), hopes to shed light on what kind of life can survive in such remote regions and serve as an on-Earth comparison for habitats deep inside Mars or on the ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Scientists hunt for microbes under Antarctica to understand habitats on Mars, moons

Postdoctoral researcher Wei Li of the SALSA team digs out his tent after it got drifted over with snow during a night of high winds. Image credit: SALSA/Instagram

While Mercer will be the second subglacial lake that humans have sampled directly, Fox wrote, it will be the first time scientists will use a remote vehicle to roam beneath the ice sheet, which leads the scientists to wonder if the submersible's three video cameras might capture images of animals that live in the dark water.

This is the second such expedition for Priscu.

In 2013, he and other MSU researchers published the discovery of microscopic life in Subglacial Lake Whillans in the journal Nature and received worldwide attention.


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