A view down the the borehole at about 3,500 feet (1,070 meters) below the ice. Image Credit: Kathy Kasic/salsa-antarctica.org.

Scientists Drill One Kilometer Beneath Antarctica And Find Ancient Lifeforms

"Early studies of the water samples showed the presence of approximately 10,000 bacterial cells per milliliter..."


Unearthing Life in Extreme Environments

Researchers from the Scientific Access to the Antarctic Subglacial Lakes (SALSA) project have discovered ancient life forms in water samples taken from Lake Mercer in Antarctica, buried under a glacier. The organisms were found in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

A Breakthrough in Sample Collection

The scientists managed to obtain the samples after drilling through more than one kilometer of thick Antarctic ice to reach liquid water. “Early studies of the water samples showed the presence of approximately 10,000 bacterial cells per milliliter,” explained John Priscu, professor of polar ecology at the University of Montana, in an interview with Live Science.

A Surprising Discovery

This high number of bacterial cells is surprising for a sunless body of water located deep beneath an Antarctic glacier. However, it is only about 1 percent of the 1 million microbial cells per milliliter. Furthermore, discovering 10,000 bacterial cells per milliliter in Antarctica’s dark and deeply buried lake suggests that the subglacial lake may support higher life forms like tardigrades.


“We saw lots of bacteria — and the [lake] system has enough organic matter, you would think, to support higher life forms,” Priscu said. “We are really going to get a good look for higher organisms, like animals … but that won’t be done for another couple of months.”

Comparisons to Previous Discoveries

The discovery of life more than 1 kilometer beneath Antarctica’s ice complements the high traces of bacterial life found in another nearby subglacial lake—Lake Whillans—in 2013.

Implications for Life Beyond Earth

These findings raise hopes that similar lifeforms could one day be discovered in hostile environments on other planets or moons, such as Europa or Enceladus. Lake Mercer, measuring nearly 160 square kilometers, was discovered over a decade ago after scientists analyzed satellite images. Despite being found a long time ago, the lake has never been explored.


Lake Mercer is a hydraulically active subglacial lake located more than one kilometer below the Whillans Ice Plain, a fast-moving section of the West Antarctic ice sheet. It is also one of the 400 lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic ice. Experts say that discovering life at such depths and in such an extreme environment could raise hopes of finding similar organisms on Mars or on Jupiter and Saturn’s ice-covered moons.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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