Bacteria trapped for “millions of years” under Antarctic ice


Photo stock.xchng Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Science news sites are abuzz with the discovery of an ecosystem trapped under an Antarctic glacier for an alleged time of “at least 1.5 million years”.1

It was not that long ago that the world of science believed that nothing could survive in an environment that was not only near freezing, but totally dark and lacking oxygen. Since then, a range of creatures have been found that thrive in the most amazing conditions. We wrote about a number of such “extremophiles” in Creation magazine of December 2001—see “Life at the extremes”.

The latest discovery involves a pool of iron-rich water 400 metres (1300 feet) underneath the Taylor glacier in Antarctica. As long ago as 1911 Arctic explorers were drawn to a “frozen waterfall-like feature” at the glacier’s edge. This became known as Blood Falls because of its striking bright-red colour,2 which was thought to be due to red algae. However, subsequent analysis showed that the colour was due to “rust” (iron oxide) in the water that flowed out from time to time from beneath the glacier before freezing rapidly.

Due to the unpredictable timing of these “leakages” from underneath the glacier, head researcher Jill Micucki, of Dartmouth University, took several years before she was able to analyze the salty water, which was probably once part of the sea. Interestingly, it contained absolutely no oxygen. In it were thriving colonies of bacteria that make a living without either oxygen or sunlight. They do this by chemically transforming iron and sulfur compounds.

The pool under the ice is estimated to be about 5 km (3 miles) wide, and it was probably trapped, for instance in some fjord, when the Taylor Glacier reached sufficient size. The excitement about the find is not because of the strange metabolism of these creatures, because this was known already from bacteria in similar light-and-oxygen-free environments. The intense interest seems to have come from two main factors.

One factor is the desire to find life elsewhere in the solar system, most parts of which involve very inhospitable environments. This would reinforce the evolutionary belief that life ‘just happens’ by chance chemistry.3

The other is the fascination at finding a “time capsule” of things believed to have been living in total isolation for “millions of years”. But the facts fit perfectly well with these bacteria having lived there only since they were trapped during the great post-Flood Ice Age. In fact, the latter explains it somewhat better, because bacteria have extremely short generation times, sometimes even minutes. That means that a huge number of generations would have occurred over even a million years. So these bacteria would have had the equivalent of hundreds of millions or even billions of years of human generations. This is sufficient to evolve radically different forms—if the large timescale were real and the neoDarwinian mechanism of mutations and natural selection were adequate to turn microbes into mammoths.

Ann Pearson, a Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, says that “the species living there are similar to contemporary organisms, and yet quite different”. Not that different, however. The main species discovered from the Blood Falls outflow is apparently Thiomicrospora arctica—the same species already known and described years earlier. Its species name derives from its discovery under ice at the opposite end of the world—the Arctic. With these trapped Antarctic bacteria remaining the same species as those not entombed with them, it makes much more sense for the entrapment to have been thousands, not millions of years ago.

Author’s note added 24 April 09:

When the above was published as a rapid response to news reports, the original Science paper was not yet available to us. It was subsequently brought to our attention that it contains an estimate of doubling times of 300 days. If that estimate is correct, it is much slower than many bacteria, though it still means the equivalent of some 30 million years of human generations by way of comparison.

Published: 23 April 2009