Scientists began their summer in a place close to its absolute antithesis: a subglacial lake 800 metres below the surface of Antarctica. In January, a team of US researchers drilled a hole through the Antarctic ice sheet to see if the lake harbours life.
And it does. A “large wetland ecosystem” to be precise, complete with about 1 000 bacteria for every drop of water sampled, all of them having not seen the light of day in millions of years. Not that they need it. The bacteria are non-photosynthetic, and likely get their energy fix from minerals extracted from the lake’s rocks.
Finding life in such an extreme environment may hint at the possibility of its existence outside of Earth, perhaps in underground oceans on the moons of Jupiter.
Feeling that Jupiter was too far, NASA’s Curiosity rover settled for the planet Mars in its search for extraterrestrial life. The probe landed on our neighbour last August, but has only recently started using its instruments.
Throughout November and December, Curiosity heated a soil sample to see what would boil off. A higher than anticipated amount of water surprised researchers, but there was an absence of the carbon-containing compounds needed for life as we know it.
Equally curious is James Cameron, who earlier in 2012 felt inclined to sink 11 km in a submarine to the deepest point on Earth: the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.
But the scientific results from his expedition were not revealed until December. Cameron, fittingly the director of both Titanic and Avatar, found potential new species of sea cucumber that may contain medicinal chemicals, cracks in the seafloor where life may have originated, and communities of microorganisms feeding off methane.
Back home, Australian researchers were looking at something else from the microscopic world: HIV. HIV is well-known as the precursor to AIDS, but the researchers from Queensland and Victoria essentially found a way to incapacitate the virus.
They made a genetic change to a protein normally found in HIV and introduced the mutant protein to human cells. When the cells were infected with HIV, the protein stopped the virus from replicating. A proven treatment, however, is still distant.
And from the micro to the macro, astronomers using NASA’s Kepler space telescope have estimated that our galaxy is home to at least 17 billion planets the size of Earth. Multiply that by the hundreds of billions of other galaxies the universe contains and you get…a lot of other planets we could fuck up.
So, what did you do over summer?