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Scientists Confirm Life Under Antarctic Ice

samzenpus posted about 3 months ago | from the cold-living dept.

Science 46

MikeChino writes A new paper by a group of researchers from Montana State University confirms that life can survive under antarctic ice. Researchers led by John Priscu drilled down into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and pulled up organisms called Archaea. These organisms survive by converting methane into energy, enabling them to survive where there is no wind or sunlight, buried deep under the ice.

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Wind and sunlight? (-1)

Thanshin (1188877) | about 3 months ago | (#47726993)

These organisms survive by converting methane into energy, enabling them to survive where there is no wind or sunlight,

The missed the part that makes this case unique. The organism could live with no wind, no sunlight and no cheetos!

Re:Wind and sunlight? (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727119)

What surprises me is the "the source of the ammonium and methane is most likely from the breakdown of organic matter that was deposited in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago when Antarctica was warmer and the sea inundated West Antarctica." part.
If the methane was already readily available, why didn't the organisms multiply to use up the methane faster?
I guess some organism breaks down the organic matter to methane and thereby limits the availability for the methane eating organism. But over the course of a hundred thousand years I feel that such a limited ecosystem should have exhausted the resources long ago.
What is the limiting factor that prevents this?

Re:Wind and sunlight? (2)

Chrisq (894406) | about 3 months ago | (#47727129)

What surprises me is the "the source of the ammonium and methane is most likely from the breakdown of organic matter that was deposited in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago when Antarctica was warmer and the sea inundated West Antarctica." part. If the methane was already readily available, why didn't the organisms multiply to use up the methane faster? I guess some organism breaks down the organic matter to methane and thereby limits the availability for the methane eating organism. But over the course of a hundred thousand years I feel that such a limited ecosystem should have exhausted the resources long ago. What is the limiting factor that prevents this?

I guess everything is really slow because of the cold temperature. It would be nice to have a comment from someone that knows about this type of ecosystem.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (1)

Jesrad (716567) | about 3 months ago | (#47727211)

I wonder if similar critters could survive in the liquid methane lakes and rivers of Titan ?

So far there is nothing to stop them ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727253)

I wonder if similar critters could survive in the liquid methane lakes and rivers of Titan ?

So far there is nothing to stop organism to form under the methane sea of Titan to take advantage of the vast quantity of ready-made energy supply over there

Re:So far there is nothing to stop them ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727599)

So far there is nothing to stop organism to form under the methane sea of Titan to take advantage of the vast quantity of ready-made energy supply over there

How do you figure that? The organisms in Antarctica are unlikely to have started from scratch there. Rather they probably started out as something else and evolved to cope with the energy available.
Don't you think it is quite unlikely that something that can sustain itself on methane will appear directly out of whatever else there is on Titan for organisms to be created from?

Same goes for water. Organisms can't be created in water alone. More diverse matter needs to be available for more complex molecules to be created.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (1)

cusco (717999) | about 3 months ago | (#47730991)

The average surface temperature on Titan is about -180 C. On Titan water is a rock, and since these (and all other Terran) organisms are mostly water I think it unlikely. Any critter that lives on Titan will not be at all similar to anything on Earth, no matter how extreme its environment.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47732287)

Water is important here on Earth as communicating fluid, a medium for transportation of molecules in cytoplasm. It also happens to be important solvent, due to its polarity. In a way, abundance of water shapes the way we think about chemistry and how we classify chemical compounds. In the world where water doesn't form highly corrosive liquids, e.g. pH is largely nonsensical. Water molecule in liquid phase easily breaks down and emits a free proton, but does liquid methane do as well? Does it have some other trick instead? Chemistry of solid water temperatures has to be reinvented first (or chemistry as a whole massively generalized), and only then we can understand what we may find in such worlds.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47728415)

probably not as open an ecosystem, as one would think, the organisisms eat the methane, they don't trasnmute it, therefore they die, and probably the methane is broken back down and released back, hence, methane may not be the catalyst, not sure what is, and if methane is the catalist, maybe the rocks are what their eating, and theres tons of rock under the ice

Re:Wind and sunlight? (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47729233)

I'm a biogeochemist (haven't worked on this project or in the arctic, but I know about microbial communities and organic matter decay) and while this is certainly interesting, it is not very strange.
What you have to remember is that organic matter decays very quickly (and some types decay faster than others, e.g. DNA seems to decay faster than lignin), but only if it has plenty of oxygen. For this same reason we still find oil after millions of years, it is anaerobically decayed organic matter. Furthermore, if you look closely at the chemical composition of the oil, you can determine how old it is by looking at how far it has decayed rather than looking at the overall mass which will barely have changed essentially (so rather than seeing C30H60 + 45O2 -> 30CO2 + 30H2O it would look more like C30H60 -> 2C15H30 followed by C15H30 -> C7H14 + C8H16, which are very slow steps)

In Antarctica, we have a very similar environment, except now our low oxygen concentration isn't because the organic matter was buried under sediment but under ice. Add to this that we have subzero temperatures (low temperatures reduce the rate of organic matter decay) and the case is starting to add up for long term preservation of organic matter. So while this system will certainly run out of organic matter (and thus ammonia and methane), it will do so very slowly.

Since I don't know the exact individual species involved in this ecosystem it becomes very hard to say which step exactly is limiting the growth. However, I can tell you that ammonia is converted into other more oxidized nitrogen species (such as nitrite and nitrate) relatively easily compared to the rate of methane conversion. So my guess would be that either the limiting step is the methane production, the system lacks enough other nutrients like phosphate (which, interestingly, is generally a limiting factor in marine systems), or there is not enough sulfate (methane is generally broken down by microbes by using sulfate as an oxidizer, if you get a sediment sample with a lot of methane in it, you will generally find not much sulfate remains).

I hope this helps to clarify a few things, but without knowing the actual microbial community and depositional environment etc. I can't say much for certain about the actual limiting factor.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (2)

Sique (173459) | about 3 months ago | (#47729673)

Additionally, we have van t'Hoff's rule, stating that increasing the temperature will result in 2-3 times the speed of the reaction. Reversely it means that organisms living close to the freezing point of water have their reaction speed reduced to about one tenth to one hundredth.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (1)

genner (694963) | about 3 months ago | (#47728837)

These organisms survive by converting methane into energy, enabling them to survive where there is no wind or sunlight,

The missed the part that makes this case unique. The organism could live with no wind, no sunlight and no cheetos!

Sure you could use store brand cheese puffs.........if you call that living.

Re:Wind and sunlight? (1)

Applehu Akbar (2968043) | about 3 months ago | (#47729845)

Researchers need to at least check whether organisms living on this diet can generate code in a caffeine-free ecosystem.

Yaaaaaaawn Where next? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727073)

Slashdot office?

The Old Ones (3, Insightful)

plopez (54068) | about 3 months ago | (#47727093)

They better not stir them up

Re:The Old Ones (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727135)

"10:15 P.M. Important discovery. Orrendorf and Watkins, working
underground at 9:45 with light, found monstrous barrel-shaped fossil of
wholly unknown nature; probably vegetable unless overgrown specimen
of unknown marine radiata. Tissue evidently preserved by mineral salts."

That's how it all started...

Re:The Old Ones (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727141)

They better not stir them up

Someone already has. It lives in the kabbah and exerts an evil force over millions

Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li! (2)

laejoh (648921) | about 3 months ago | (#47727127)

Ob H.P. Lovecraft [dagonbytes.com]

Good for them (2)

hyades1 (1149581) | about 3 months ago | (#47727149)

"These organisms survive by converting methane into energy, enabling them to survive where there is no wind or sunlight..."

I convert methane into something...worse.

Re:Good for them (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727175)

How did the methane get there if nobody released wind? obviously there is something wrong with their science.

Re:Good for them (3, Insightful)

captainpanic (1173915) | about 3 months ago | (#47727287)

This life is not necessarily in a circle of life. It can be methane formed in a similar way as natural gas or swamp gas. These can be pockets of methane that can eventually be depleted.

I'm just speculating though. As a good /. member, I didn't even rtfa.

Re:Good for them (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727467)

"In the carbon cycle, methanogen archaea remove hydrogen and are important in the decay of organic matter [...].
Methanogens are the primary source of atmospheric methane, and are responsible for most of the world's yearly methane emissions."

If these methanogens can survive in this place it could also explain methane's presence. If it's an organism capable to produce methane with stuffs under antartic ice and consume this methane as energy, then we need to know what it needs to produce methane. Only hydrogen would be nice : put these organisms in a box, shake it, do technical stuff ican'tdescribebecauseidon'tknowhowtobuildanengine, give it water and boum : energy !

called Archaea (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727165)

Researchers led by John Priscu drilled down into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and pulled up organisms called Archaea

Were they called this before we pulled them up?
Did they tell us they were called Archaea?

Re:called Archaea (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727183)

Something being called something does not imply that something had any say in the matter. We also call you Anonymous Coward.

Re:called Archaea (2)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 3 months ago | (#47728113)

They didn't, but since they speak Archaeanish, it was a simple matter of association.

Re:called Archaea (4, Funny)

Bob_Who (926234) | about 3 months ago | (#47729209)

Researchers led by John Priscu drilled down into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and pulled up organisms called Archaea

Were they called this before we pulled them up? Did they tell us they were called Archaea?

If I recall from my comic books Archaea tried to breed with Betty and Veronica.

I knew they were frigid, but this is the first I'm hearing about their meth usage.

Makes sense. (1)

EzInKy (115248) | about 3 months ago | (#47727245)

Life is created under ideal conditions then it evolves to survive in harsh environments. Certainly I would prefer to believe that the opposite is true, but the evidence presented so far does not support that.

Re:Makes sense. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47728047)

"Ideal conditions" are a matter of perspective. When life started on Earth, the conditions certainly wouldn't have been ideal for us. How do we know what "ideal conditions" are?

Sounds familiar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727309)

Thick ice sheet. Abundance of methane.
This recalls me some Saturn and Jupiter moon.
As well as a few comets and asteroids...

Re:Sounds familiar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727477)

I almost thought that was a Haiku:

Methane and ice sheets -
Just like one of the space moons;
As well as comets.

Re:Sounds familiar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727847)

Nice one. :)

Re:Sounds familiar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730307)

Thought it was paraphrasing Shelly or Yeats myself.

Re:Sounds familiar (more haiku) (2)

Bob_Who (926234) | about 3 months ago | (#47729319)

I almost thought that was a Haiku:

Methane and ice sheets - Just like one of the space moons; As well as comets.

Archaea icebergs
Loves Betty,Veronica
"Just the Tip", he begs...

Unique? (1)

bazmail (764941) | about 3 months ago | (#47727459)

These organisms survive by converting methane into energy, enabling them to survive where there is no wind or sunlight, buried deep under the ice.

Whats producing the methane?

Re:Unique? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47730011)

According to Priscu, the source of the ammonium and methane is most likely from the breakdown of organic matter that was deposited in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago when Antarctica was warmer and the sea inundated West Antarctica.

Sweet (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47727739)

Finally a pet that can survive on farts!

Biology != Science (0)

fygment (444210) | about 3 months ago | (#47728041)

The "butterfly collectors" are surprised again ... well some are. The others are getting used to the idea that they really have no clue about where and how life can exist.

Re:Biology != Science (2)

aliquis (678370) | about 3 months ago | (#47728523)

And how are you supposed to understand it without looking?

All these worlds are yours except Europa... (1)

nani popoki (594111) | about 3 months ago | (#47728181)

The case for life in the oceans which appear to exist below the ice crust of Europa just got a little stronger.

Re:All these worlds are yours except Europa... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47728251)

exactly what I thought...

But what about... (1)

B5_geek (638928) | about 3 months ago | (#47728335)

I see that nobody has asked the really important question.

How do they taste?

Re:But what about... (1)

cusco (717999) | about 3 months ago | (#47731115)

Having ingested fumarole Archea (and survived the truly amazing case of the 24-hour runs resulting from that stupidity) I would guess really, really nasty.

Right, thaw them out... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 months ago | (#47729099)

... And then, how do we know who's who? I mean, if any of those researchers had been replaced by an imitation, how could we tell?

Re:Right, thaw them out... (1)

nani popoki (594111) | about 3 months ago | (#47729473)

Be sure to shoot any albatrosses that fly near. (It's been decades since I read Who Goes There.)

Re:Right, thaw them out... (1)

JockTroll (996521) | about 3 months ago | (#47730505)

Loserboy nerd, do a fucking blood test. If you can't do a proper lab thing, draw blood from each suspect and plunge a heated wire into the sample. If it withdraws or leaps out of the Petri dish squealing, torch the subject. Problem solved. You don't know a Thing, don't you?

John Carpenter's The Thing (1)

jsepeta (412566) | about 3 months ago | (#47730877)

yep, knew it all along

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