Secrets of Lake Vostok in Antarctica

Russia practically froze the new drilling of the sub-ice Antarctic Lake Vostok, and at the very moment when it came closest to the discovery of local life.

We all know that after drilling in the depths of Lake Vostok in Antarctica, we found traces of an extremely unusual bacterium. Foreign scientists believe that there are many exotic multicellular species in the lake. Their domestic counterparts reject this view, but they also believe that continuing his research would bring a lot of new information – and would allow us to understand how life in other worlds of the solar system can look. In the near future this will not happen: the main works on the “East”, unfortunately, stopped. If such discoveries are made in the lake, then it can become a merit of foreign researchers – and it will not happen very soon.

Lake Vostok – a large reservoir for 6000 cubic kilometers, which is many times more than in Ladoga. In addition, the East is under ice, at a depth of almost four kilometers, causing the pressure there to 400 atmospheres, while oxygen and nitrogen have nowhere to go without contact with the atmosphere. The lakes they fill with water are a unique environment, which should be the most unfavorable water for life on Earth. But, despite this, life still exists – at least, so believes a number of Russian and American scientists who have studied the results of its drilling. Although the assessments of the researchers from these two countries are radically different from their habitat, they all believe that they have found traces of local life.

In April 2017 the premiere of the film “Lake Vostok: Ridge of Madness” was held, in which it was told about very difficult conditions in which Russian polar explorers and scientists achieved very significant results in the search for life under several kilometers of Antarctic ice. The film still collects international awards, but it is connected with history and more important than any awards. He raises the topic of the actual stop of deep clean drilling on Lake Vostok by the forces of the polar station of the same name. The lack of financing does not allow to make big steps there since 2015. And now the station is several times smaller than the man at the peak of the work. There is practically no hope for a big discovery of the local ice life. It’s time to take a look at the history of drilling, to understand what was achieved there and what – thanks to the current “freeze” of the work – it will not be possible to achieve.

On the topic of who lives under the ice between the station “Vostok” and the lake of the same name, there are two points of view. One of them is American, the other is Russian. The first relies on the results of the less deep drilling that the US carried out in the area in the 1990s. Then it was possible to get only ice over the lake – one that was formed from its waters, gradually rising up and freezing. Based on the analysis of his samples, a group of Scott Rogers (Scott Rogers) metagenomically found there sequences of genes of 1623 species! Of these, six percent belonged to rather complex creatures – eukaryotes, creatures with a dedicated core surrounded by a wall. Something so difficult the least expected to see at a depth of several kilometers.

Moreover, one of the types of bacteria, supposedly found in this way, lives only in the intestines of fish – it simply does not occur separately from them. Genetic sequences typical for rotifers and mollusks are also found. From this, the American group concluded that among the inhabitants of Lake Vostok there could be extremely complex creatures, even fish and crustaceans. According to one hypothesis, the lake in the form of an open reservoir existed for tens of millions of years and only the last 14-15 million are hidden by ice.

Hence, the researchers theorize, local fish and crustaceans had a lot of time to gradually adapt to the under-ice conditions. In addition, if they are there, they can make the extreme conditions of the East not so extreme. Oxygen-breathing organisms could consume an excess of oxygen that enters the lake along with ice. Then, in the depths of the lake, the excess of this gas – a strong oxidizer, next to which life is not easy – may not be.

Russian scientists led by Sergei Bulat reacted to this discovery extremely coldly. They quite rightly pointed out that drilling was conducted using technical fluids contaminated with ordinary soil and other bacteria. To distinguish external pollution from “local residents” is almost impossible without the use of “clean drilling”. Domestic researchers believe that in such conditions it is possible to talk about real “eastern” life only if genetic sequences are found that do not resemble anything at all.

And specialists from the Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences were able to find there a DNA bacterium that did not coincide with any of the known species. It is so alien to them that it was not possible to even place it in a group of bacteria. 14 percent of its genes are not found in any other known species. As Sergei Bulat said at the time, this DNA is so unlike anything else that “if it were found on Mars, they would undoubtedly say that this is life from Mars.” Although this is terrestrial DNA. ”

However, these are bacteria, simple, unicellular, without “bloat” and excessive complexity. The genes of something unexpected and even more complicated, but different from terrestrial species, have not yet been found in ice samples. So eukaryotes and even multicellular fish, in the opinion of our scientists, are being canceled. This, perhaps, is not bad. Fish living without light and nutrient intake from above should be so alien to all that we know that, in fact, they would not be much different from any “green men” from the stories of creative ufologists.

The question of whether there are multicellular cells in the East is not at all closed on this. More recently, scientists have learned that multicellular – in particular fungi – in some mysterious way can survive deep beneath the sea floor. There, the pressure is even higher than in the subglacial lake. Apparently, mushrooms somehow cohabit with bacteria chemoautotrophs, extracting energy from inorganic matter due to its oxidation. “Fuel” for such a deep life is not enough oxidized iron compounds – for example, as part of olivine. Bacteria “burn” it with oxygen and get water.

And at the end of April, 2017, it became known that multicellular fungi of the type described can exist under the sea floor for 2.4 billion years. And they arose even before the saturation of the atmosphere with oxygen. That is, contrary to the previously existing views, multicellular and complex life, neither the oxygen atmosphere nor the favorable conditions of the planet’s surface are needed. If so it was billions of years ago, it may well be that even today in the subglacial lake there are organisms more complicated than bacteria – and much more.

For a second suppose that everything can be just like that. Then the importance of their discovery goes far beyond our knowledge of earthly life. The fact is that the depths of Mars, Titan, Enceladus, Europe, Ceres and many other bodies of the system also have an ice cap from above, water from below and high pressure. They are so similar to the conditions of the East that the conclusion suggests itself: if a difficult life is found under the ice of Antarctica, it is difficult to exclude its presence in other worlds of the solar system.

At first glance it may seem that the main problem of the Antarctic under ice life is cold. In fact, everything can be completely wrong. Yes, the upper layers of the lake are cooled to minus three Celsius. If there were no pressure above 350 atmospheres – and in their place there would be ice, only it does not allow to freeze so cold water. And yet, most likely, the lower layers of the lake are much more extreme in terms of temperatures.

In the ice a hundred or two meters above the lake it turned out to find Hydrogenophilus thermoluteolus – a thermophilic bacterium. Although it is quite ordinary “by sight” (genes are similar to other known patterns), it is very difficult to write it off for external contamination. And not only because the thermophilic bacterium in Antarctica would be a rather strange pollutant. More importantly, before the ice over the East, it turned out to be found only in hot springs. On the surface, she has nothing to do – she lives, oxidizing hydrogen, accumulating where hot water contacts rocks.

Such a “pollutant” almost certainly could not get into kerosene or freon used in drilling, from Russia or other parts of the world. Production of such substances is nowhere located in hot springs. On this basis, Russian and French scientists suggest that at the bottom of the subglacial lake the same sources are hidden, through which, besides hot water, hydrogen enters, which serves as the basis for chemoautotrophic life.

In general, Hydrogenophilus thermoluteolus is by no means the largest extreme among those who live near hot water. Such as she, live and develop at 40-60 degrees Celsius. The most “hard” ones are more simply arranged single-celled, archaea, which carry up to 122 degrees Celsius. True, until the traces of the archaeas in the ice above the lake or in the samples from it could not be found. So if it’s hot at the bottom, it’s not excessive, not above the boiling point at which bacteria die.

Several years ago, deep drilling into the lake began to slow down. To get to this depth, the drill does not fit: the melting water from the ice quickly freezes. It is replaced by non-freezing kerosene or freon. But if such fluids – they can have many bacteria in them – will get into the waters of the lake, it will be very difficult to understand which of the aborigines found during drilling, and who is the alien. Russian researchers have long concluded that the last dozens of meters of ice, and even more so in the lake itself, requires fundamentally different technologies that exclude the contact of lake water and external liquids.

Alas, this means that you need new equipment for drilling. And its creation – unlike the exploitation of the former – requires money, albeit not on a cosmic scale. So somewhere in 2015, the further course of work seriously slowed down. The “drill” part of the station’s staff is now only a few people, and sometime to accomplish this task, its staff was brought to dozens.

What happened most likely is as if, after October 1957, Khrushchev suddenly said that satellites were expensive to launch, and did not give funding for all other space flights. Russian scientists have found the best candidate for an unusual life for an under-ice lake, lying at a depth of a kilometer. The lake is, as many believe, connected by subsurface channels with other local lakes – there are dozens of them in Antarctica, the East is simply the largest. And suddenly, instead of continuing to work, to find new bacteria or even multicellular, we suddenly abandon the fight ourselves.

The logic behind this decision can be understood. Khrushchev could not say “played and enough” – he would have lost face because of the competitive pressure from the US. There was W. Brown with his dreams of the Moon, and the refusal to fly would put the USSR in an uncomfortable position. Unfortunately, malignant Americans do not rush to compete with us in the direction of exploring the most exotic life on earth. For this, the States simply do not have a polar station right above the lake. As a result, the situation may turn into a long halt to our own efforts in this direction.

However, NASA is just thinking about the methods of drilling kilometer ice on Europe. Probably, there they will reflect on the tests of the mobile drilling complex over the same East. Then it can turn out that the priority in the discovery of the most extreme under-ice life will be for someone else.