Lake Vostok is still and lifeless. Perhaps.

You remember Lake Vostok, yes? The Antarctic lake where scientists pulled up some water from 20 million years ago, just to see what things might have survived? Well, New Scientist says, initial reports are …nothing much, so far:

Isolated from the rest of the planet for 14 million years, Lake Vostok might be the only body of water on Earth to contain no life whatsoever. However, if life is found, it will be a big boost for researchers hoping to find microorganisms on icy moons like Europa.

Sergey Bulat of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, and colleagues have now analysed the water – contaminated with some drilling fluid – that froze onto the drill bit at a depth of 3714 metres. He counted cells and looked for traces of DNA.

In preliminary results, reported at last week’s 12th European Workshop on Astrobiology in Stockholm, Sweden, Bulat says there were only about 10 cells in every millilitre. There was also DNA from four species of bacteria, three of which were known to exist in the drilling fluid. The fourth was able to degrade the hydrocarbons within fluid to release energy, suggesting it had adapted to life inside the fluid. Bulat thinks none of the bacteria came from the lake.

He cautions that we cannot yet be sure that the upper layers of Lake Vostok are devoid of life, as microorganisms could be living at low densities that he could not reliably detect. “The concentrations expected for indigenous stuff are very low,” Bulat says.

[Lake] Ellsworth could yet become the first Antarctic lake to yield life. A British team plans to drill into it within the next few months, and will lower in a probe that will collect samples of sediment from the bottom.

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