Subglacial Life in Antarctica

Organisms cultured from the samples collected from Lake Whillans. Credit: LSU/Christner et. al. (2014)

Scientists have proven that microbial ecosystems exist in a subglacial lake in Antarctica. The researchers cultured microorganisms from samples of water and sediment that were collected from Lake Whillans, which lies 800 meters beneath the surface of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Antarctica is thought to have more than 400 subglacial lakes and streams, potentially providing an extensive habitat for organisms like those found in Lake Whillans. The new study provides astrobiologists with a glimpse into these unique habitats for life, which have remained largely unexplored until now.

An image from the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) borehole camera is shown. Credit: The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling Project

Astrobiologists have long been interested in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes as analog environments for icy worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa. Beneath the icy surface of Europa lies a liquid water ocean, and studying ice covered lakes on Earth could provide clues about the potential for life beyond our planet.

Many of Antarctica’s lakes are thought to support habitats that are almost completely isolated from the surface environment. Organisms living in these lakes would have developed unique adaptations in order to survive in the dark, cold waters while being cut off from the rest of Earth’s biosphere for long periods of time. The evolution of these  ecosystems could serve as an example for how life might adapt to similarly isolated environments on other worlds in the Solar System.

Samples were collected during the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. The article, “A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet,” was published in the journal Nature under lead author Brent C. Christner.


Support for the project was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the private Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

To read more about the research, including other results from the WISSARD project, visit the journal Nature at: http://www.nature.com/news/lakes-under-the-ice-antarctica-s-secret-garden-1.15729

Aaron L. Gronstal: