Alien life bombshell: Extremophile now discovered buried beneath glaciers

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Extremophiles thrive in boiling water, acid, the water core of nuclear reactors and even toxic waste. And life has yet again dumbfounded scientists, having been found lurking hidden beneath an icy glacier.

Reams of data collected from ice-covered habitats world-wide has led Montana State University (MSU) researchers learn the processes capable of supporting the most basic forms of life lying underneath glaciers.

It initially didn’t make sense, because we couldn’t figure out where that hydrogen gas was coming from under these glaciers

Eric Dunham

This is helping reveal the role those organisms play in perpetuating life through ice ages.

And experts now hope something similar could perhaps occur in apparently inhospitable environments on alien planets.

The landmark research examined how water and microbes interact with the bedrock beneath glaciers.

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To do so, they used samples of sediment from glacial sites in Canada and Iceland.

Doctoral candidate Eric Dunham of MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture was one of those responsible for the stunning study.

He said: ”We kept finding organisms in these systems that were supported by hydrogen gas.

“It initially didn’t make sense, because we couldn’t figure out where that hydrogen gas was coming from under these glaciers.”

The researchers then realised how the hydrogen was formed.

Through a chain of physical and chemical processes, hydrogen gas is created as the silica-rich bedrock underneath glaciers is crushed into mineral particles by the sheer weight of the ice above.

And when these mineral particles combine with glacial meltwater, they produce hydrogen.

Microbial communities under the glaciers could then harvest this hydrogen gas and combine it carbon dioxide to generate more organic matter, known as biomass.

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This is achieved through a complex chemical process called chemosynthesis.

Chemosynthesis closely resembles how plants generate biomass from carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

However, the process sharply differs as chemosynthesis requires zero sunlight.

Mr Dunham proceeded to use glacial samples to better understand these chemosynthetic microbes.

Samples of the living organisms found in the sediment were grown in a lab.

These were then observed for several months to see whether they would continue growing in the simulated environment.

Mr Dunham said: ”The organisms we were interested in rely on hydrogen gas as food to grow, and most are also anaerobes, meaning oxygen will kill them.

“One of the most critical steps in preparing these experiments, and easily the most stressful element, was getting those samples into bottles and flushing out all the oxygen as quickly as possible, so I didn’t kill the organisms I was trying to study.”

The University of Toronto’s Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar, who was not involved with this glacier study, recently said how she believes life’s sheer tenaciousness does hint at alien life existing elsewhere.

Addressing the Toronto Science Festival in 2013, she said: “Mars is likely to be in abiotic haystack, a planet where at least now, we are searching for signs of past life.

“But we know for sure right now that the surface of the planet seems to be primarily dominated by non-biological processes.

“But we’re testing out all our techniques on [Earth], a planet that has the inverse problem.

“Our planet is so successfully overprinted by life that we have few places on the planet left that show us what it may have looked like before life arose.”

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