Seven weeks camping by a frozen lake in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but geology professor Dawn Sumner is excited to be on her way to Antarctica this week. That’s because Lake Joyce, in the dry valleys of Antarctica, contains microbes that are slowly fossilizing right now and look tantalizingly similar to rocks from 3 billion years ago. Understanding just how microbes lived in those rocks can help us understand the first appearance of life on Earth, and might give some hints about what traces of life would look like elsewhere in the universe.
Sumner will be blogging the trip at dawninantarctica.blogspot.com.
The team members are Sumner and UC Davis postdoc Bekah Shepard; Dale Andersen, Darlene Lim and Alfonso Davila of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe; Ian Hawes, Aquatic Research Solutions Ltd.; Christopher McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center; Wayne Pollard, McGill University; and Bernard Laval, University of British Columbia. After staging at McMurdo base, they will take a helicopter to Lake Joyce in the dry valleys. The 40-meter deep lake is permanently covered with 6 meters of ice. Some of the team will be diving in the lake to study microbial life.
More information about Lake Joyce is available on Dale Andersen’s website.
Last year, Bekah Shepard (then a graduate student in Sumner’s lab) took part in a diving expedition in Pavilion Lake, BC studying similar rock/microbe formations called microbialites. Watch our video report here.
Sumner is also interested in the search for life on Mars. In 2006, Sumner and Greg Chavdarian published work comparing features seen in the White Sands desert in New Mexico to features seen by the Mars rover Opportunity, suggesting that liquid water might be present near the surface of Mars.
Several other UC Davis scientists have visited Antarctica. Geology professor Ken Verosub, who made several trips to the continent in the late 1990s, called it “awe-inspiring.” Geophysicist Gary Acton was there in 2007-8 working on the ANDRILL drilling project. And a mountain in the Queen Maude range is named after Robert Feeney, a protein chemist who made several visits in the 1960s and wrote a book on Antarctic exploration.