Antarctic analogue for alien life?

The full ‘Snowball Earth’ model for episodes in the Neoproterozoic that left glaciogenic sediments at near-equatorial palaeolatitudes implies that the oceans were frozen over globally. An objection to that is the likelihood that all photosynthetic activity would have been shut down leading to near catastrophe for all life forms of the time except those based on chemoautotrophic metabolism, as around hydrothermal vents. Antarctica has around 140 lakes that have been frozen over for at least hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, the best known being Lake Vostok, deep within the continent, that Russian scientists are on the verge of tapping after drilling through more than 3 km of glacial ice. Who knows what they might find? Far less extreme, but also having perennial ice cover, is Lake Untersee close to the coast in East Antarctica. Its summer ice cover is 3 m thick and it is presumed to have remained icebound through previous interglacials, although it is fed by meltwater from a nearby glacier in summer. It is not filled with fresh water, however, having a pH up to 12.1, around that of household bleach. It also has very high oxygen content, in fact supersaturated at 50% more than the solubility expected at 0°C. Lake Untersee would be expected to have little life, being an extremely hostile environment. Nonetheless, it does boast a biome and sufficient light gets through the ice cover to support microbial mats of photosynthesising blue-green bacteria (Andersen, D.T. et al. 2011. Discovery of large conical stromatolites in Lake Untersee, Antarctica. Geobiology, v. 9, p. 280–293). As well as perhaps helping elevate the oxygen levels in the lake water, these organisms have secreted stromatolite-like cones, pinnacles and mounds, but not ones made of carbonate. Although the water contains plenty of calcium ions, there is insufficient carbon as CO3 or HCO3 ions for calcite to be precipitated. The carbon-poor nature of the water seems to confirm its long-term isolation from the atmosphere. Instead, the stromatolites are made of laminated clay, maybe derived by exceedingly slow breakdown of feldspars that would also yield calcium and hydroxyl ions to explain the waters peculiar chemistry. The different shapes of stromatolites are linked to different cyanobacterial communities, which may help explain morphological variations among fossil stromatolites.

Stromatolites in Lake Untersee, East Antarctica. Image Dale Andersen,
            Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe

The lead author is from the SETI Institute in California, and presumably visited Lake Untersee in the cause of exobiology, as reported in other commentaries on the paper. However, the peculiarities of the lake and its life seem to be just that, with little relevance to frigid sedimentation in the distant past apart from a possible explanation for varying shapes of fossil stromatolites. Nor is the lake sterilised by virtue of perennial ice cover. Being fed by glacial melting it has received rock flour that has broken down to clays, and that implies meltwater carries other materials from the ice cap. Even Antarctica is not isolated from wind-blown dust, so cyanobacteria may have been introduced by sturdy, wind-borne spores being incorporated in the ice cap, eventually to end up in Lake Untersee. It seems that the lead author actually dived in the lake, which puts the fears of contamination by careful drilling into Lake Vostok into perspective. How such an environment links to notions of life elsewhere in the universe is hard to see. The truly fascinating thing about home-grown cyanobacteria is that early variants may well have cuddled up with other simple cells for mutual wellbeing to become the chloroplasts of eucaryan photosynthesising autotrophs, on which most metazoan life on Earth now depends.



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