Earlier this week, Russian scientist Sergei Bulat, a researcher at the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, announced that a new life form had been found in an ice sample from the gigantic Lake Vostok, which lies deep beneath Antarctica. The Russians had to drill over 12,000 feet to get to the frozen lake, which is underneath a place that had the lowest recorded temperature in history. Needless to say, the sample from Lake Vostok was extremely hard to obtain, and the Russians were rewarded for their hard effort with some spectacular scientific findings.
Bulat described the discovery on Thursday:
After excluding all known contaminants…we discovered bacterial DNA that does not match any known species listed in global databanks. We call it unidentified and ‘unclassified' life."
"Unidentified" and "Unclassified," very cool! Unfortunately for Bulat however, the next day Russia backed away from their claims, saying that what they found had in fact been contaminants.
So why would an incredibly well-respected scientist like Dr. Bulat jump the gun on the new bacteria? Because we're in the middle of a multinational underground lake race, that's why!
Bulat was under enormous pressure to provide results, coming weeks after American scientists found their own bacterial life in Lake Whillans, another giant underground Antarctic lake. British scientists have also tried to get in on the underground lake game, failing to reach Lake Ellsworth this December.
Nations want to get to these lakes to study microorganisms that have not been tampered with for thousands of years. As the Russians found out, contamination is a major obstacle to the study. However, the financial windfall, in grants and private funding, that will come to whatever group cracks the DNA of the new organisms first is more than enough to rekindle some cold, cold war-style competition.