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NASA Researchers Discover Ancient Microbes In Antarctic Lake

"This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa," said Chris McKay, a senior scientist and co-author of the paper at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Murray and her co-authors and collaborators, including Peter Doran, the project's principal investigator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, developed stringent protocols and specialized equipment for their 2005 and 2010 field campaigns to sample from the lake brine while avoiding contaminating the pristine ecosystem.

"The microbial ecosystem discovered at Lake Vida expands our knowledge of environmental limits for life and helps define new niches of habitability," said Adrian Ponce, co-author from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who enumerated viable bacterial spore populations extracted from Lake Vida.

To sample unique environments such as this, researchers must work under secure, sterile tents on the lake's surface. The tents kept the site and equipment clean as researchers drilled ice cores, collected samples of the salty brine residing in the lake ice and assessed the chemical qualities of the water and its potential for harboring and sustaining life.

Geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine's diverse microbial life.

Additional research is under way to analyze the abiotic, chemical interactions between the Lake Vida brine and its sediment, in addition to investigating the microbial community by using different genome sequencing approaches. The results could help explain the potential for life in other salty, cryogenic environments beyond Earth, such as purported subsurface aquifers on Mars.

This study was partially funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit research campus of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

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