Sunday, August 11, 2013

Update from Beautiful Lake Vostok

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Lake Vostok may or may not be capable of harboring life.  Have researchers from Bowling Green University found proof of life?

   Over the years I've written many times about Lake Vostok, an underground lake in Antarctica which has been frozen over for millions of years.  Recently, a team of Russian scientists succeeded in drilling through more than two miles of ice to find the fresh water underneath.  They retrieved some samples of lake water, and kept some and sent some to other scientists.  Everyone wants to know whether any kind of like was able to survive for millions of years in total blackness.  Some people figure that it is impossible since there is no light to support photosynthesis.  
    I am far from an expert in the field, but on the other hand the problem is kind of like pro football in the sense that the casual fan's opinion is about as good as the experts'.  They just don't know.  

    My personal sentiment is that I would love for some life to exist, preferably some prehistoric type. If it does, maybe it is also possible for life to exist in other dark cold oceans.  In particular, Europa is a moon of Jupiter the size of a small planet, and which has a water ocean covered completely by ice. Many observers have suggested that the search for life in Lake Vostok, may have implications for the likelihood of life in the ocean of Europa. 

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Jupiter's moon Europa is known to have a water ocean underneath its icy surface.  In that respect it may resemble Antarctica.

    Last year the Russians thought they had found evidence of an unknown bacterium from ice that came up with the drill bit, but this was disputed in scientific circles ( ). Otherwise the water brought up from the upper layers of Lake Vostok seems to be lifeless ( Lifeless surface layers of Lake Vostok ).  Now an American group from Bowling Green University have analyzed some ice cores (not pristine lake water, but ice taken from close to the lake surface).  They claim to have found abundant evidence of  microorganisms ( ). The media has been quick to embrace their claims.  "Teeming with life!"  gushes MSNBC ( ).  Why they have even found some bacteria that live only in the guts of maybe there are fish in Lake Vostok and they are puking this bacteria....

    But hold on just a daggone minute!!   If these bacteria only live in fish guts, and the sample is not fish guts, doesn't it seem more likely that this is contamination?  Yes the researchers tried to not handle the water samples, and they wore gloves.  But can they be sure that nobody touched the gloves?  Or the containers?  Contamination is always an issue in a project of this sort.  I think the guys involved in drilling were eating fish, and so wouldn't it make more sense to assume that the fish gut bacteria probably might have come from them?

Indeed Nature magazine has reported on the controversy ( Nature article about Lake Vostok  ).   The scientists are not so quick to embrace the wild claims of abundant life as the news media.

   More data will likely resolve the controversy.  I'm still hoping that they will find evidence of something glamorous, like the Loch Ness monster. But at the moment it is questionable whether anything at all can in fact survive.  

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I loved the Godzilla movies when I was a kid. Wouldn't it be cool to find some prehistoric life form living in Lake Vostok?  

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