Antarctic expedition seeks unique forms of life

A British engineering team will next week head off to Antarctica in an attempt to understand more about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) mission plans to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice.

Lake Ellsworth, on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), is one of the most remote and hostile environments on Earth with temperatures of −25°C. But scientists hope that they may discover unique forms of microbial life in this cold, pitch-black and isolated environment.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments,” says Dr David Pearce, science coordinator at BAS.

“If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.”

The BAS, together with Durham University and Austrian company UWITEC, have designed and built a percussion-driven sediment corer, which can extract cores up to three meters long.

It’s strong enough to penetrate even the most compacted glacial sediments, they say.

Next, a five meter long water sampling probe will collect 24 water samples at different lake depths, as well as capturing the top layer of sediments on the lake floor.

The team hopes to find evidence of viruses, bacteria, single-celled microorganisms called archea and more complex organisms called eukaryotes.