Researchers have discovered life under glaciers: it exists thanks to hydrogen

Researchers at Montana State University used data collected from years of researching ice-covered spaces and found that microbes could live in permafrost thanks to hydrogen.

The scientists investigated how glaciers interact with water and microbes: they did this using sediment samples taken from glaciers in Canada and Iceland.

We continued to find organisms even at high freezing temperatures: their life was supported by hydrogen.

Research text

The research team found that physical and chemical reactions under the glaciers generate hydrogen gas as the silica-rich bedrock beneath the glaciers breaks into tiny mineral particles under the ice’s weight. When these mineral particles combine with ice-cold meltwater, they release hydrogen.

Interestingly, microbial communities beneath glaciers could combine this hydrogen gas with carbon dioxide to form biomass through a process called chemosynthesis. Chemosynthesis is similar to producing biomass from carbon dioxide using photosynthesis, although it does not require sunlight for chemosynthesis.

Scientists used samples from glacier deposits in Canada and Iceland to learn more about what these chemosynthetic microbes are doing. They grew samples of living organisms found in the sediment in the laboratory. They observed them for several months to see if they would continue to grow in the simulated environment.

Over several months of preparing and observing microbial cultures, scientists have found that it is not only possible to track the growth of communities in the laboratory but that the type of bedrock underlying the glacier affects the amount of hydrogen gas produced. Thanks to it, microbial communities appear that are better adapted to the metabolism of hydrogen.

Bacteria use this hydrogen gas for energy, and they also pull carbon dioxide out of the air to create biomass, multiply, and grow.

Scientists believe their research will help study glaciers on other planets and potentially help to learn about life on them.

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