So, about that amazing new bacteria that a Russian team said Thursday that they’d discovered in an underground Antarctic lake? The one that Sergei Bulat, a geneticist at the Saint Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics, said was an entirely new form of life, with a basically unknown form of DNA? Genetics lab head Vladimir Korolyov said that it probably doesn’t exist.
“For now we’d rather not say something we will be unable to whitewash even with the crystal clear Vostok water,” Korolyov told a Russian news agency today. He said that they did find several specimens that looked interesting, but they proved to be contaminants introduced from borehole kerosene drilling fluid or human handlers.
Last year, the Russians became the first team to reach and drill the frozen lake buried in Antarctica, in a race somewhat reminiscent of the space race of the late 1950s and early 60s. On Feb. 10, 2012, the team participated in a publicity stunt that went to the highest levels when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was ceremoniously presented with what was claimed to be water from Lake Vostok.
It wasn’t. They didn’t drill deep enough to get the water that time. It was almost a year later, Jan. 10, before they finally obtained the first core of frozen lake ice from a drilling depth of almost 11, 200 feet down.
Although anyone might feel justified in being skeptical of the Russian team’s results, a 50-member American team is also searching Antarctica’s underground frozen lakes for possible life, including new bacteria species. They lost the race to the Russians since their drills didn’t reach the target until Jan. 28, but they too have collected samples from a frozen lake called Lake Whillans.
John Priscu, a Montana State University biologist working on the project, told National Geographic that they had found living microbes in their samples. “I believe it is safe to say that [the] subglacial lake beneath the Whillans Ice Stream supports a microbial assemblage that is growing within this dark and cold habitat,” he said.
However, the American team was careful to acknowledge that they will need to perform tests early to make sure that the samples weren’t contaminated from the drilling process. After the Russian publicity stunts, people will likely demand a high level of proof before they accept any claims that the frozen lakes support any form of life, including any new bacteria species.