Scientists have found life in an ecosystem trapped underneath a glacier in Antarctica for nearly 2 million years. The microbes, they suggest, are surviving the dark, oxygen-free waters by drawing energy from sulfur and iron.
But how could they have survived for so long, with no light or oxygen? Mikucki and her team uncovered three main clues. First, a genetic analysis of the microbes showed that they were closely related to other microorganisms that use sulfate instead of oxygen for respiration. Second, isotopic analysis of sulfate's oxygen molecules revealed that the microbes were modifying sulfate in some form but not using it directly for respiration. Third, the water was enriched with soluble ferrous iron, which would happen only if the organisms had converted ferric iron, which is insoluble, to the soluble ferrous form. The best explanation, the team reports in tomorrow's issue of Science, is that the organisms use sulfate as a catalyst to "breathe" with ferric iron and metabolize the limited amounts of organic matter trapped with them years ago.
Blood Falls, a small, saltwater outflow from Taylor Glacier's subglacial lake in Antarctica's Dry Valleys,... trickles out at the glacier's end, painting an orange stain across the ice as its iron-rich waters rust upon contact with air.