Search Begins for Life in Antarctic Lake

Lake Ellsworth has been isolated for up to 500K years

By Liam Carnahan,  Newser Staff

Posted Dec 12, 2012 8:36 AM CST

(Newser) – What lurks in the pitch black, near-freezing waters of Lake Ellsworth? That's what British researchers, who began their trek to the lake in October 2011, hope to find out in as soon as a week. They've begun drilling through more than two miles of ice to reach the water, kept just above freezing by the rocks beneath it, reports the BBC. And while others have drilled into Antarctic lakes before, this marks the first time it'll be done using ultra-sterilized equipment. "Unless we keep the experiment very clean, we're likely just to measure the things that we bring down us with, which would be pointless," says the lead scientist.

It'll take five days to create the borehole (the deepest ever made in this fashion) using a high-pressure hose that blasts sterilized water heated to about 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers will then have to rapidly collect samples before it freezes closed—and they hope to find microbial life that has developed in ways never seen before. Should they do so, it could have out-of-this-world implications. "If there's life on [Jupiter's] Europa it'll be living in a very similar way to life in Lake Ellsworth," says the scientist, "with total darkness, lots of pressure, and using chemical processes rather than sunlight to power biological processes." Results could come as early as next week.

The Antarctic sunlight illuminates the surface of the sea ice.
The Antarctic sunlight illuminates the surface of the sea ice.   (AP Photo/NSIDC, University of Colorado)
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