Antarctica’s Lake Ellsworth: UK Team Will Drill for Million-Year-Old Microbial Life

Lake EllsworthProf. Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol, England, will lead a team of British scientists, engineers, and support staff in the search for million-year-old bacteria deeply embedded in the subglacial ice of Lake Ellsworth, Antarctica.

The technology involved to accommodate the extreme temperatures in Antarctica is absolutely amazing. Numerous instruments and power tool assemblies had to be custom made to accommodate this task. First there is a custom-built hot-water drill, and a bespoke sediment corer that will be lowered down a 3 km borehole in the ice, as well as a state-of-the-art titanium water sampling probe. And if that isn’t enough, all this technology has to be sterilized not just to pharmaceutical standards, but to space industry standards to ensure the unexplored Lake remains immaculate.

This project is a combination of 16 years hard work by a British scientist Martin Siegert, leader of the team and the explorer who first discovered Lake Ellsworth in 1996. Prof. Siegert is not the only academic from the University of Bristol’s school of geographical sciences to be on board with the project. Aquatic biogeochemist Prof. Martin Tranter is also on site as well as biogeochemist Prof. Jemma Wadham.

Lake Ellsworth was discovered in 1996 by Prof. Siegert, and is just one of the 380+ known subglacial Antarctic lakes. Lake Ellsworth has seen over a half million years of total isolation, and life in subglacial lakes must adapt to total darkness, low nutrient levels, high water pressure, and isolation from the atmosphere as well.

The research team will recover water and sediment samples from Lake Ellsworth in an attempt to discover whether life exists there and perhaps shed some clues on the past climate changes of Antarctica.

“The most likely organisms to be found will be bacterial… They’re everywhere.” Said David Pearce, a microbiologist with the project. “If there’s nothing there, that will tell us the limits for the existence of life on earth.”

Radar and sonar surveys taken of Lake Ellsworth demonstrate that the lake floor sediment is suitable for coring, and ice sheet samples would allow the team to record history which may hold key information about climate change. It will take 100 hours of continuous drilling from the surface to reach the lake.

Please watch this video made by the team which will explain in greater detail the absolute project parameters.

Article by Jim Donahue


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