July 26, 2013
A Glacial Lake Controversy
Recently, National Geographic reported on a controversy of organism discovery in an Antarctic lake called Lake Vostok. The controversy originated with one research group’s announcement that it found over 3,500 samples of bacteria, fungi, shellfish, and maybe even fish live in the lake. However, many other experts on Lake Vostok, scientists who have also studied its inhabitants (or lack thereof), say “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.”
The group, lead by “Study leader Scott O. Rogers, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, acknowledged the other scientists’ doubts and said he expected it.” Thus, they published their findings in a rather reputable journal, the PloS ONE, which is a peer-reviewed online journal with open access. To gather their data, the team analyzed a core section of the glacier that sits atop the lake. The core was drilled out in the 1990s by a Russian team with help from American and French scientists. However, the legitimacy of this particular core has long been questioned because the Russian team “used kerosene to aid in drilling ice cores, and many have concluded that organisms in that fuel have contaminated the samples—especially the older ones from the 1990s.”
As a teacher of writing in all its forms, particularly logical, supported writing, the claim that the finding does not have the necessary strong scientific support caught my attention. And I am not the only one caught by this skepticism. Furthermore, the fact that many scientists have questioned whether or not the sample used by Rogers team is contaminated is a bit more damning. Even if the core sample is not contaminated, the fact that it was questioned at all will be hard to shake. In the words of Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, “Unfortunately, once the integrity of the samples is called into question, the results will always be suspect, so these results need to be taken with caution and some skepticism.”
The Rogers team was careful when transporting the ice, but if the kerosene used to aid in drilling had organisms that contaminated the sample, then the fact 3,500 organisms were found could be a result of the contamination.
In response, Rogers 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.'” So, he is trying to address the skepticism of the validity of their findings by claiming they used a new technique, which could absolutely explain away any of the questions. Yet, those questions linger.
Because if his team’s findings are correct, then the way scientists have previously understood life that lives very deep under ice will radically change. This is not necessarily bad, but it makes sense that scientists are treading lightly in this controversy.
The findings are absolutely thrilling if they are correct. The only way to really prove their validity is further research from more core samples taken from different drilling sites. It will definitely be interesting to watch this unfold.
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