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Antarctica Researchers Seek Clues to Life in Ice-Buried Lake

October 10, 2011

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Clues to how life evolved on Earth and possibly other planets may be hidden in a lake covered by 3 kilometers (2 miles) of Antarctic ice, U.K. researchers said.

Researchers will set off next week to deliver drilling equipment needed to collect liquid and sediment samples from Lake Ellsworth, a body of fresh water sandwiched between the West Antarctic ice sheet and the bedrock of Earth’s southernmost continent, the British Antarctic Survey said today in an e- mailed statement.

The goal of the project is to determine what forms of life may exist in the cold, pitch-black environment of the buried waters, David Pearce, science coordinator at the survey group, said in the statement.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of, and constraints for, life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments,” he said.

No evidence of life would also be a key finding. “If we find nothing, this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet,” Pearce said.

Lakes exist deep below the Antarctic surface because the pressure exerted by thousands of meters of ice drives down the freezing point of water. Lake Ellsworth is one of 387 known subglacial Antarctic lakes and the first to be studied for signs of life.

The advance party leaving next week will deliver 70 tons of equipment to the research site, where they’ll face temperatures as cold as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Antarctic spring.

To ensure the samples aren’t contaminated by material from the surface, they’ll be collected using equipment that meets the same standards as equipment designed for space exploration. Drilling is due to begin in October 2012.

--Editors: Will Wade, Charles Siler

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at

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