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Scientists melt million-year-old ice in search of ancient microbes

Researchers from the University of Delaware and the University of California at Riverside have thawed ice estimated to be at least a million years old from above Lake Vostok, an ancient lake that lies hidden more than two miles beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica.

The scientists will now examine the eons-old water for microorganisms, and then through novel genomic techniques, try to figure out how these tiny, living time capsules survived the ages in total darkness, in freezing cold and without food and energy from the sun.

The research, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and is part of the International Polar Year, is designed to provide insight into how organisms adapted to live in extreme environments.

It's some of the coolest stuff I have ever worked on, said Craig Cary, professor of marine biosciences at UD. We are going to gain access to the genetics of organisms isolated for possibly as long as 15 million years.

The collaborative research team includes Cary and doctoral student Julie Smith from UD's College of Marine and Earth Studies; project leader Brian Lanoil, assistant professor of environmental sciences at the University of California at Riverside, and doctoral student James Gosses; and Philip Hugenholtz and postdoctoral fellows Victor Kunin and Brian Rabkin at the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.

Last week in Lanoil's laboratory in California, segments of a tube-like ice core were thawed under meticulous, clean lab conditions to prevent accidental contamination, a process that required nearly a year of preparation.

It was very exciting to see the Vostok ice, knowing how old it is and how much it took to get that ice to the lab, Smith said. The ice core itself was incredibly clear and glasslike, reflecting the light like a prism.

The segments of ice were cut from an 11,866-foot ice core drilled in 1998 through a joint effort involving Rus

Contact: Tracey Bryant
University of Delaware  

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