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Thursday, March 26, 1998 Published at 16:10 GMT


Ancient microbes found at south pole

Antarctic microbe /NASA

Fungal spores, algae and bacteria that have been trapped in Antarctic ice for possibly 400,000 years have been discovered and some of them may be in suspended animation capable of coming back to life. Our science correspondent David Whitehouse reports:

Since 1974 scientists at Russia's Vostok ice station situated at the very center of Antarctica have been extracting ice cores from the polar ice cap. Drilling down 12,000 ft (3600 metres) they have brought to the surface ice that was formed 400,000 years ago.

[ image: American and Russian scientists examine microbe]
American and Russian scientists examine microbe
When the ancient ice is melted and passed through fine-mesh filters microbes are extracted. Studying such microbes may help scientists understand the evolution of life on Earth and how to search other worlds for signs of life.

[ image: Antarctic microbe]
Antarctic microbe
"We're exploring a new world," says Richard Hoover of NASA who is assisting the Russians. Over 400,000 years bacteria could have undergone significant evolutionary changes. Comparing modern and ancient bacteria could throw new light on how they have evolved.

It is well known that bacteria can survive for hundreds of thousands of years in the permafrost of Siberia so there is a chance that scientists could coax the ancient bacteria back to life.

[ image: Europa, an ice-moon of Jupiter]
Europa, an ice-moon of Jupiter
Beneath the ice under Vostok station lies an underground lake. Cut off for possibly millions of years it may contain forms of life that have been isolated from outside influence. So far scientists have stopped drilling 300 ft (90 metres) above the lake to avoid contaminating it.

Exploring Lake Vostok will help them search for signs of life on Mars and on the frozen ice worlds of the outer solar system.

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