archive: SETI 400K piece of Lake Vostok to be studied

SETI 400K piece of Lake Vostok to be studied

Larry Klaes ( )
Thu, 20 May 1999 13:34:46 -0400


Contact: John Priscu
Montana State University

Frozen Time Capsule From Lake Vostok Arrives At
Montana State University

BOZEMAN, MT--Federal Express has shuttled some unusual items from
place to place. Zoo
animals, for example, and all kinds of biological specimens. But the
400,000 year-old wedge of
ice from Antarctica is "one of the odder things I've heard that's been
transported," said Eric
Johnson of the company's Phoenix call center.

The ancient ice, about 18 inches long and 4 inches thick, travelled
via Federal Express from the
National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver to Bozeman, Montana. It arrived
at Montana State
University in a scratched, blue Coleman cooler that looks so ordinary
it could hold two cold-packs
of Old Milwaukee.

But it was with slight reverence that MSU biologist John Priscu and
civil engineer Ed Adams
opened the cooler, sifted through the packets of Johnny plastic ice
and lifted the core labelled
"Vostok 3590."

"A rather unremarkable piece of ice," Priscu summarized after stepping
out of the cold room at
MSU, where other frozen chunks of Antarctica are stored. "But we'll
try to make something of it."

Such understatement, typical of scientists, doesn't completely hide
the enthusiasm Priscu, Adams
and other MSU scientists have for what's ahead. The group gets to
analyze four bits of dirt
imbedded in the core to see what ancient microbes may be attached. If
found, those organisms
could harbor genes isolated from the rest of the world for close to
half a million years. The
microbes may yield promising new enzymes or antibiotics, scientists
say, and offer views of how
ancient and contemporary microbes differ.

What's more, if life exists on other planets, it's probably locked in
ice, scientists say. In that way,
the Antarctic studies are a prelude for similar studies on Mars and

Priscu and Adams have done similar work before. They and others found
bacteria attached to bits
of gravel and sand entombed six feet underneath the ice of
Antarctica's Lake Bonney. The
discovery, published last year in Science, was reported around the

But this ice is much, much older. It came from Lake Vostok, a body of
water the size of Lake
Ontario resting more than two miles under the East Antarctic ice cap.
It's one of the world's 10
deepest lakes and one of about 70 lakes underneath the glaciers of
central Antarctica.

Russian scientists have been coring since the lake was discovered in
1974. Now, in cooperation
with the U.S. and France, the Russians are sharing samples with
scientists around the world. The
Lake Vostok core is the deepest ice on the planet -- older, even, than
samples drilled from
Greenland's glaciers.

This particular piece was plucked from 3,590 meters (about 11,800
feet) below the surface, hence
its "Vostok 3590" label. MSU has only half of the 18-inch core. The
other half is archived "in case
we screw up," Priscu joked.

The ice looks as clear as an icicle, leading the group to think it may
be frozen lake water instead of
ice from the overlying glacier, which would appear more granular. But
a battery of digital
photographs, x-rays, CT scans and crystal analyses should tell for sure.

One of the team's biggest challenges will be to transport a thin
section of the core from the cold
room in Roberts Hall to the scanning electron microscope -- one
building over and one floor up --
before it starts to melt. The group plans to practice on a piece of
Lake Bonney ice first. When it's
time to handle the Vostok ice, they'll have help from University of
Alabama technician Kathy Welch,
who's worked with cores from Greenland.

"We need to get muscle memory," said geology professor and team member
David Mogk, "so
that as soon as we get that tiny piece of ice we know all the steps."
MSU civil engineering
professor Bob Brown and postdoctoral student Cristina Takacs are also

If the group sees bacteria-shaped objects under the eye of the
powerful electron microscope,
they'll send the samples to a DNA laboratory for genetic analysis.

Even though other scientists have found yeast, fungi, bacteria and
algae on younger pieces of
Vostok ice, Priscu can't predict what he may find on his core, if
anything. But from work in other
frozen environments, he knows that if certain conditions are met,
organisms can survive in
unexpected places. Liquid water is the key, even in icy ecosystems

"Once you get liquid water, the environment is primed for life," said
Priscu. "It can bloom."