Saturday, December 22, 2012

Life Past The Edge

Scraping the bottom.

"We're pretty certain we've found something," said Dr Walker Reklaw, a lead scientist at Extremophiles-R-Us, a joint scientific consortium consisting of scientists from Russia, the U.K, and the U.S.

Earlier this month, teams from those three countries began drilling into Antarctic lakes lying under many, many kilometers of ice.


First, because they're scientists, and scientists do things like that.

But there are more profound reasons, like having generous funding, which pays the bills and keeps the teams supplied with beer, cigars, and tins of smoked herring.

And even more fundamental reasons. Like fame. Which comes to those who uncover previously unknown weird stuff.

Stuff like microbes creeping around blindly in dark waters at unfathomable depths in frozen wastes. Which impresses some.

But yet again, hey. Only microbes. What is it with the microbes?

Which is where Walker Reklaw enters the picture.

He's got a different angle.

Instead of drilling holes in ice and searching through frigid muck for signs of life, Reklaw is after bigger game.

And he may have found it.

Reklaw's strategy was to stick to land, and to more temperate regions. He's been exploring remote reaches of the Continental Divide Trail in Wyoming, a place where humans never go. Or never did go.

Until now.

Reklaw's plan was simple: to hike, and to keep at least one eyeball peeled for signs of extremely primitive life.

After weeks of searching he found a clue. A wrapper from a packet of ramen noodles.

Then a discarded boot sole, and shortly after that, ashes inside a ring of stones.

"I can't tell you how excited I've been. I've hardly slept in weeks," Reklaw texted from his tent in the Wind River Range.

And recently I hit paydirt - contact with primitive human-like creatures seemingly native to this environment.

I even befriended some of them. We communicate with hand gestures, and by sharing food. Mostly Snickers bars. Snickers bars seem to be their favorite.

What was a huge surprise to me was that they were all wearing clothes, and they seem to have developed language too.

Some even have names, though they seem a little tentative on that point. Maybe that's why they call them "trial names".

But regardless, they are definitely the most primitive land-dwelling organisms ever discovered.

One distinguishing characteristic is a compelling urge to keep moving north, changing locations daily, and never (or almost never) bathing. And they eat mysterious lumps of disturbing substances they carry in bags on their backs.

And sleep on the ground. All the time.

This could have huge implications for biology as a whole, and especially for the search for extraterrestrial life.

If species this primitive can exist on earth, then that certainly opens the door to finding life on other planets. Even planets spookier than earth.

Meanwhile, back in Antarctica, drill bits continue to plunge ever deeper through layers of dense ice, searching for yet more surprises.

Because you never know what's out there until you look.


Race Is On to Find Life Under Antarctic Ice