Lake Vostok Bacteria & the Power of Social Media

Click here for full press release (PDF)
Click here for full press release (PDF)

Today, I had to explain to my 4-year-old that Daddy was a little later than usual (I was not “late”) picking her up from school because he was helping facilitate and curate a live tweeted translation/paraphrasing of a press release in Russian (by @PsiWavefunction) about the odd bacteria that may or may not have been discovered by a research program to drill into and investigate a gigantic sub-glacial lake that has been sealed off from the rest of the world for millions of years.

You can follow the translation by PsiWavefunction on the Storify I created as we went. The take home message from the press release was Russian scientists are not incompetent doofuses and:

My daughter’s response? “Antarctica is where penguins and King Cryolophosaurus live!”

Author: Josh Witten

http://www.thefinchandpea.com

2 thoughts on “Lake Vostok Bacteria & the Power of Social Media”

  1. Hi. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been frustrated by the paucity of information about this claim.

    One think I am confused about is the implication of these results. Why might there be a novel sub-kingdom (or whatever) in Lake Vostok?

    It seems that the authors (with their comments about Europa) are pushing the idea that the extreme environment of Lake Vostok is somehow related to the fact that we are finding a novel phylogenetic lineage. I don’t see how the two are connected.

    An alternative hypothesis is that this novel lineage is isolated to lake Vostok due to the ice-barrier in between the lake and the rest of the world. Does that mean that it evolved there? Probably not… that’s an immense amount of divergence for 25 million years. Alternatively, was this lineage common throughout the world 25 million years ago, but went extinct in the rest of the world? That is the most plausible explanation that I can think of, and quite interesting (but probably not answerable)

    1. My understanding is that the expectation is that Lake Vostok will contain the remnants of the ecology that was present millions of years ago when the lake was closed off plus divergence. The conditions in the lake could contribute to even more extreme divergence than we might expect by chance. We also don’t know if the generation time under these conditions is at all comparable to those elsewhere.

      We need to bear in mind that we are looking at a press release. Scientifically, there is a world of difference between having a difficulty placing a DNA sequence in a phylogenetic tree and truly having something new.

      The connection to astrobiology seems to mainly be that this would be proof that life can exist in extreme conditions. The connection to Europa (for example) would seem to be that being locked under ice does not stop life. My understanding is the expectation is that conditions on Europa are expected to be quite different (salty water) compared to Lake Vostok (fresh water).

      To me the take home is that they preliminarily found something a bit odd and are now taking reasonable steps to confirm or refute the preliminary finding.

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