DNA reveals ‘intriguing’ traces of life under glaciers

ANIMALS and plants may live in warm caves under Antarctica’s glaciers, according to a new study led by the Australian National University (ANU). 

The animals and plants are suspected to be around Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica, where its steam has hollowed out extensive cave systems.

Lead researcher Dr Ceridwen Fraser from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, says forensic analyses of soil samples from these caves have revealed intriguing traces of DNA from algae, mosses and small animals.

“It can be really warm inside the caves – up to 25 degrees Celsius in some caves. You could wear a t-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable. There’s light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin,” she says.

Most of the DNA found in the caves on Mount Erebus is similar to DNA from plants and animals – including mosses, algae and invertebrates – found elsewhere in Antarctica, but not all sequences could be fully identified.

“The results from this study give us a tantalising glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica – there might even be new species of animals and plants,” she says.

Prof Laurie Connell, a co-researcher from the University of Maine, says these intriguing DNA traces did not conclusively prove plants and animals were still living in the caves.

“The next steps will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms. If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world,” she says.

The research, published in the international journal “Polar Biology”, was funded by the Australian Research Council, with sample collection supported by Antarctica New Zealand and the Marsden Fund.

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