Frozen Time Capsule From Lake Vostok Arrives At Montana State University

May 17, 1999

BOZEMAN, MT--Federal Express has shuttled some unusual items from place to place. Zoo animals, for example, and all kinds of biological specimens. But the 400,000 year-old wedge of ice from Antarctica is "one of the odder things I've heard that's been transported," said Eric Johnson of the company's Phoenix call center.

The ancient ice, about 18 inches long and 4 inches thick, travelled via Federal Express from the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver to Bozeman, Montana. It arrived at Montana State University in a scratched, blue Coleman cooler that looks so ordinary it could hold two cold-packs of Old Milwaukee.

But it was with slight reverence that MSU biologist John Priscu and civil engineer Ed Adams opened the cooler, sifted through the packets of Johnny plastic ice and lifted the core labelled "Vostok 3590."

"A rather unremarkable piece of ice," Priscu summarized after stepping out of the cold room at MSU, where other frozen chunks of Antarctica are stored. "But we'll try to make something of it."

Such understatement, typical of scientists, doesn't completely hide the enthusiasm Priscu, Adams and other MSU scientists have for what's ahead. The group gets to analyze four bits of dirt imbedded in the core to see what ancient microbes may be attached. If found, those organisms could harbor genes isolated from the rest of the world for close to half a million years. The microbes may yield promising new enzymes or antibiotics, scientists say, and offer views of how ancient and contemporary microbes differ.

What's more, if life exists on other planets, it's probably locked in ice, scientists say. In that way, the Antarctic studies are a prelude for similar studies on Mars and elsewhere.

Priscu and Adams have done similar work before. They and others found bacteria attached to bits of gravel and sand entombed six feet underneath the ice of Antarctica's Lake Bonney. The discovery, published last year in Science, was reported around the world.

But this ice is much, much older. It came from Lake Vostok, a body of water the size of Lake Ontario resting more than two miles under the East Antarctic ice cap. It's one of the world's 10 deepest lakes and one of about 70 lakes underneath the glaciers of central Antarctica.

Russian scientists have been coring since the lake was discovered in 1974. Now, in cooperation with the U.S. and France, the Russians are sharing samples with scientists around the world. The Lake Vostok core is the deepest ice on the planet -- older, even, than samples drilled from Greenland's glaciers.

This particular piece was plucked from 3,590 meters (about 11,800 feet) below the surface, hence its "Vostok 3590" label. MSU has only half of the 18-inch core. The other half is archived "in case we screw up," Priscu joked.

The ice looks as clear as an icicle, leading the group to think it may be frozen lake water instead of ice from the overlying glacier, which would appear more granular. But a battery of digital photographs, x-rays, CT scans and crystal analyses should tell for sure.

One of the team's biggest challenges will be to transport a thin section of the core from the cold room in Roberts Hall to the scanning electron microscope -- one building over and one floor up -- before it starts to melt. The group plans to practice on a piece of Lake Bonney ice first. When it's time to handle the Vostok ice, they'll have help from University of Alabama technician Kathy Welch, who's worked with cores from Greenland.

"We need to get muscle memory," said geology professor and team member David Mogk, "so that as soon as we get that tiny piece of ice we know all the steps." MSU civil engineering professor Bob Brown and postdoctoral student Cristina Takacs are also involved.

If the group sees bacteria-shaped objects under the eye of the powerful electron microscope, they'll send the samples to a DNA laboratory for genetic analysis.

Even though other scientists have found yeast, fungi, bacteria and algae on younger pieces of Vostok ice, Priscu can't predict what he may find on his core, if anything. But from work in other frozen environments, he knows that if certain conditions are met, organisms can survive in unexpected places. Liquid water is the key, even in icy ecosystems

"Once you get liquid water, the environment is primed for life," said Priscu. "It can bloom."

Montana State University

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