Shellfish Deep in Antarctic Lake? Experts Doubtful

Study showing 3,500 life-forms deep in subglacial lake proves controversial.

Russian scientists live at this research camp near Antarctica's Lake Vostok.

Bacteria, fungi, shellfish, and maybe even fish live in Lake Vostok, the buried Antarctic lake that's been likened to habitats that might exist on other planets or moons, a new study says.

But soon after the paper was published and widely reported, other Vostok experts voiced strong skepticism about its conclusions. (Related: "Race Is On to Find Life Under Antarctic Ice.")

Nothing like the kind of multicellular life described in the paper has been identified in Vostok ice cores before, they said, and the paper does not provide the strong scientific support needed to back its extraordinary claims.

Study leader Scott O. Rogers, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, acknowledged the other scientists' doubts and said he expected it.

He said that his team used a new technique to concentrate and then analyze genetic sequences found in the sample, and that "time will tell if we're right or we're wrong."

The paper, published July 3 in the open-access, peer-reviewed online journal PLoS ONE, identified the genetic signatures of more than 3,500 different life-forms in samples taken from the Vostok ice core 5G, which was drilled by a Russian team, with American and French help, in the 1990s.

The core section that was analyzed came from the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver—not from the celebrated column recovered by the Russians in early 2013, a year after their team drilled into the lake for the first time. (Related: "Russian Scientists Breach Antarctica's Lake Vostok—Confirmed.")

The sample studied is from what is called "accretion ice," which freezes on the bottom of the 2.5-mile-deep (4-kilometer-deep) glacier that sits atop the lake, which is roughly the size of Lake Ontario in North America. The accretion ice is formed from the top millimeter of the Vostok water column, which in some places is 2,600 feet (800 meters) deep.

Researchers have previously identified small but predictable numbers of single-celled organisms in various Vostok cores. But the new study's discovery of DNA and RNA sequences from complex organisms is new—and controversial.