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Some Like It Very Hot

Russian scientists have now poured 60 tonnes of freon and kerosene down the four-kilometre bore hole that plunges through the ice above Lake Vostok in Antarctica. This will stop the hole freezing up during the long Antarctic winter. When summer comes, the Russian team will return to drill the last 100 metres and expose the surface of a lake that has been buried beneath the ice for at least 15m years. Eventually they intend to explore this lost world, a place unseen by human eyes, with a robot submarine.

The temperature of the lake is about -3°C, but the water remains liquid because of the pressure exerted by the ice sheet. The pressure should also have kept the water super-saturated with oxygen and nitrogen. Once we would have assumed that this cold, lost lake would be no more than a geological curiosity, a dead relic of the time when Antarctica separated from Africa and drifted south. Now we can be almost certain that it is full of life. Most of these creatures will be tiny single-celled organisms, microbes, visible only under a microscope. But they will have novel genetic structures, they will use previously undiscovered enzymes and they will have evolved unique survival strategies. They will be a class of creature now known as extremophiles, lovers of extreme conditions.

This is a biological category that was only discovered 40 years ago. Now we know that the Earth is teeming with these hyper-resilient microbes, organisms that can survive levels of heat, cold, pressure, radiation and salt or acid concentrations that previously would have been thought fatal to all living things. The study of these creatures is still in its infancy, but they have already broadened our conception of life on Earth and raised hopes of detecting life in space. The surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, is an ocean of ice, beneath which there could be inhabited lakes like Vostok. Extremophiles also offer a cornucopia of new medical compounds, primarily antibiotics, as well as almost indestructible enzymes that could transform chemistry at both the domestic and industrial scales.

Almost daily now, new extremophile species are discovered. Also in Antarctica, outside the prefabricated hut erected by Robert Falcon Scott at the start of his doomed expedition in 1911, there are drums containing diesel oil. The site has been preserved as an historic monument so the drums remained intact until, in the last few years, they started leaking. Professor Michael Danson, director of the Centre for Extremophile Research at the University of Bath, seized the opportunity to dig into the soil beneath these leakages.“Behold! We isolated organisms that were living off the diesel oil.” Such organisms could be used to consume oil spills like BP’s disastrous gusher in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

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