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Monday, 10 July, 2000, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Snow microbes found at South Pole
Bacteria Edward Carpenter
Snow bacteria live in the harsh polar conditions
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Researchers have found evidence that microbes live in the ice at the South Pole - a discovery that may extend the known limits of life on Earth.

The bacteria would have to be able to survive the large doses of ultraviolet radiation, extreme cold and darkness at what is one of the most inhospitable places on our planet.

The microbes have DNA sequences similar to a category of bacteria known as Deinococcus.

A species in the genus Deinococcus was first discovered in cans of irradiated meat in the 1950s, and is able to withstand extreme dryness and large doses of radiation.

It is possible that the related bacteria from the South Pole may also possess these characteristics.

Commercial applications

"While we expected to find some bacteria in the South Pole snow, we were surprised that they were metabolically active and synthesising DNA and protein at local temperatures of -12 to -17 C (10.4 to 1.4 F)," said Edward J Carpenter, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"Before attempting to publish the results, we wanted to be certain that the data were correct and were able to duplicate the observations in a second field season during January 2000."

Deinococcus is thought to form one of the earlier branches in the bacterial evolutionary tree, and is much older than Antarctica in its present location.

Because of this, scientists say it is unlikely that the newly discovered microbes evolved in Antarctica.

The finding has important implications for the search for life in other extreme environments on Earth, and also for the possibility that microscopic life may exist elsewhere in the Solar System.

The snow bacteria may also possess unique enzymes and membranes able to cope with a sub-zero existence. It is possible they could find commercial applications.

The team's findings are published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology. The work was funded by the US National Science Foundation.

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10 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Bacteria found in Antarctic ice core
26 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
How life may live on Europa
25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
How life survived the big freeze
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