Lake Vostok in Antarctica: unknown bacteria or contaminants?

Artist's cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica (Image Nicolle Rager-Fuller / US National Science Foundation)

Artist’s cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica (Image Nicolle Rager-Fuller / US National Science Foundation)

In recent days, the announcement arrived that a group of Russian researchers had discovered in Lake Vostok, Antarctica, bacteria of unknown type. Subsequently, however, the head of the genetics laboratory of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in St. Petersburg where the bacteria were analyzed stated that the samples had been contaminated during the research.

Lake Vostok is the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica. It’s a freshwater lake in East Antarctica, the place where the lowest temperatures on Earth were found with -89 degrees Celsius (about -128 degrees Fahrenheit). The surface of liquid water is about 4,000 meters (about 13,100 feet)  below the ice surface. Because of these conditions, the lake may have been isolated for millions of years.

Lake Vostok was discovered by one of the Soviet expeditions carried out in the ’50s and ’60s. The research started in 1974 and in 1990 the first core samples were taken by teams of various nations. In recent years, new research were planned to study the lake without contaminating it and in 2011 a team started the the drilling operations that in May 2012 led to the taking of samples from the surface left to freeze. In October 2012, the analysis of the first samples gave negative results, instead the recent ones seemed to give much more interesting results.

The presence of bacteria, even of unknown types, in a lake in Antarctica isn’t new since last year a study was published about bacteria found in Lake Vida. However, the conditions are different because one of the characteristics of lake Vida is its high salinity. Lake Vostok is composed of fresh water and one of its features is the large amount of oxygen.

The latest statements on the contamination of the samples could ruin the research carried out into Lake Vostok. In these cases, the job must be carried out with the maximum care in order to avoid problems of this kind, in fact in the research conducted at Lake Vida the protocols established for taking samples are very strict exactly for this reason. Of course, the conditions of work in that area are really hard but this is another reason to be careful.

Obviously, further analyzes of the samples will be carried out to have the certainty of what they contain. If a contamination will actually be confirmed, it will be a warning to future research of this kind, either in Antarctica or in other places on Earth or in the search for alien life forms as on Europa, Jupiter’s satellite, or Enceladus, Saturn’s satellite, perhaps the main candidates to host some in their underground oceans.



About Massimo Luciani


See "About" page for information about Massimo Luciani aka NetMassimo, including the means to contact the author on social media.
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