SCIENTISTS are to drill to a lake buried three kilometers beneath Antarctic ice in a bid to discover new life forms.
The team, led by an expert from Edinburgh University hope the sub-glacial Lake Ellsmere, which has been cut off from the rest of the world for half a million years, could boost the understanding of the evolution of life on earth.
They also believe the dark, cold and isolated environment could mimic conditions on other planets, meaning it could provide clues as to the conditions needed for extra-terrestrial life to form.
The ambitious £7million project will take teams from eight UK universities and 70 tonnes of equipment almost 10,000 miles to the site on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Later this month an advance team will head into the -25C conditions to prepare for water sampling and other analysis to take place in 2012.
In October 2012 a team of 10 scientists and engineers will use state of the art hot-water drilling technology to bore through the ice.
They will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake.
Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica’s 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard ‘clean technology’.
For years scientists have speculated that new and unique forms of microbial life could have evolved there.
The Lake Ellsworth Programme Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, said: “For almost 15 years we’ve been planning to explore this hidden world. It’s only now that we have the expertise and technology to drill through Antarctica’s thickest ice and collect samples without contaminating this untouched and pristine environment.”
Scientists are expecting to find micro-organisms such as viruses and bacteria rather than mammels or fish. However, discoveries are likely to include forms of life that have become extinct elsewhere on the planet, adding to the understanding of evolution.
Dr David Pearce, Science Coordinator at British Antarctic Survey, said: “Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments.
“If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.”