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Deep Antarctic Life Forms Just 'Contamination' March 15, 2013
Antarctic drilling graphic
The "unclassified life" Russian scientists found at Lake Vostok turned out to be just "contaminants."
The mysterious organism allegedly discovered by Russian scientists while drilling deep into a buried Antarctic lake may have been nothing more than contamination.

That's according to the head of the laboratory where the bacterium was first “discovered."

Researchers from the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute had announced that they found evidence of an unfamiliar strain of bacteria in water samples dredged up from Lake Vostok, a massive freshwater lake buried beneath more than two miles of ice.

Sampling DNA from the microbial organism, initial tests suggested that the species did not share more than 86% of its genetic code with any other known life-form on the planet.

If validated, it would have been a landmark discovery. Any microbial life found in the body of water would have evolved without sunlight, under intense pressure and in exceptional cold.

Isolated from other known species for millions of years, the microbes would be unlike any known to science.

Speaking to a Russian state news agency after the initial test, geneticist Sergey Bulat described just how unique the new bacterium was. “If it were found on Mars, people would call it Martian DNA," said Bulat.

But the researcher and his team were brought abruptly back to Earth when their superior at the university publicly dismissed their findings, insisting that no major discovery had been made after all.

“We found certain specimen, not many, but all of them belonged to contaminates,” Vladimir Korolyev, head of the Laboratory of Eukaryote Genetics, told the Interfax news agency. Those contaminant microorganisms might have come from the borehole in the ice, from the drilling fluid or from the laboratory itself, he explained.
 
In response, members of the Russian drilling team expressed hope that new samples from the lake, due to arrive at the university this spring, will yield more promising and unambiguous results.

Graphic: Nicolle Rager-Fuller, National Science Foundation