BATON ROUGE In a finding that has implications for life in other extreme environments, both on Earth and planets elsewhere in the solar system, LSU Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Brent Christner and fellow researchers funded by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, this week published a paper confirming that the waters and sediments of a lake that lies 800 meters (2600 feet) beneath the surface of the West Antarctic ice sheet support "viable microbial ecosystems."
Given that more than 400 subglacial lakes and numerous rivers and streams are thought to exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, such ecosystems may be widespread and may influence the chemical and biological composition of the Southern Ocean, the vast and biologically productive sea that encircles the continent.
According to Christner, the paper's lead author and a researcher with the NSF-funded Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, or WISSARD, project, "hidden beneath a half-mile of ice in Antarctica is an unexplored part of our biosphere. WISSARD has provided a glimpse of the nature of microbial life that may lurk under more than five million square miles of ice sheet."
Analysis of the samples taken from subglacial Lake Whillans, the researchers indicate, show that the water contains a diverse microbial community, many members of which can mine rocks for energy and use carbon dioxide as their source of carbon.
Added John Priscu, a WISSARD scientist at Montana State University, Bozeman and a co-author on the paper, the Antarctic subglacial environment is the planet's largest wetland, one dominated completely by microorganisms.
The WISSARD findings were published Aug. 21 in the journal Nature by scientists and students affiliated with WISSARD, which is is a collaboration involving scientists at numerous institutions across the United States.
Co-author and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at LSU Amanda Achberger generated the key data
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Louisiana State University