The VICE Channels

    Newly-Discovered Antarctic Microbes Give Insight into Life on Mars

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Just another day at the office, via NSF

    Researchers looking at ice core samples from Lake Vida—a salty, mostly frozen lake in Antarctica—have discovered microbial life that was isolated for “on the order of several hundred to a few thousand years.” While it sounds like the beginning of Evil Dead or Contagion, you’ll be relieved to know that the bacteria don’t grow very well with a lot of oxygen, and seem content to slowly survive at 15 degrees below zero Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). That type of extreme environment means the microbes could be similar to potential organisms on Mars.

    View Larger Map

    In Google Map’s “Standard View” you can’t tell when Lake Vida is loaded all the way up, because there is nothing there to load.


    Lake Vida is so cold that it was thought to be permafrost, however researchers found that between 15-20 meters below the surface, the Antarctic lake turns into a sediment-saturated “brine.” Likely run-off from ancient, melting glaciers, the liquid is so salty that it doesn’t freeze, even though the temperature is well below freezing. The brine contains so much iron that when it hits the air it rusts, turning from pale yellow to an orange-brown.

    In 2002, researchers came across microbial
    life in Lake Vida, but stopped short of collecting
    any of it, due to fear of contaminating the lake
    with their surface germs. Courtesy of the BBC

    It may not seem like much of an environment, but for these microbes, it’s apparently enough.

    The environment is thought to have been sealed off from the Sun for 3,000 years, and yet still the bacteria and protobacteria live on, slowly synthesizing protein. The researchers are still not sure what the microbes are living on, but the paper indicates similarities to microbes who flourish in comparably sunless environs in the ocean’s depths.

    The paper also points out how, as we expand our understanding of life’s many forms on Earth, we open more possibilities for life beyond our home planet, pointing to places like Jupiter’s moon, Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and even Earth’s neighbor, Mars.


    For those breathlessly awaiting some “big news” that NASA is being so-very coy) about, hearing that life keeps shivering on in isolation, extreme cold and with plenty of iron makes life on Mars seem all the more plausible, a possibility not lost on the researchers.

    As co-researcher Peter Doran, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the BBC in 2002: “Mars is believed to have a water-rich past, and if life developed, a Lake Vida-type ecosystem may have been the final niche for life on Mars before the water bodies froze solid.”

    Sure, all they do is synthesize protein. But then, what do you do that’s so great?

    At the very least, it’s another place to look.

    This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is another in the onslaught of research looking for life in the extreme environment of an Antarctic lake. Around 380 of these lakes have been found using radar, and in February, a Russian team penetrated Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest and deepest lake, which might mean they win this part of the Cold War.