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Rushabh Doshi
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The science news continues -- the Russian team drilling into Lake Vostok in Antarctica has discovered a previously unknown form of life living in the water. The reason this is so important is that Lake Vostok is, perhaps, the single most isolated body of water on Earth: 2.34 miles beneath the Antarctic  surface, buried and isolated for over a million years, receiving no sunlight, heated only by the energy of the Earth's mantle. It represents some of the most extreme conditions on Earth, and as such is in many ways a template for how life might exist elsewhere in the Solar System. 

The lake itself was only hypothesized to exist in the 1950's, and its existence was only confirmed in 1996. The Russians have been drilling since the late 1980's, and last year finally reached its surface. (Consider the challenges of drilling 2.3 miles deep at 78° South, at a place literally called "the Pole of Cold") And the first rewards are coming: the discovery of new forms of life, isolated from all other life for an unknown length of time, but still somehow thriving in these extreme conditions. Its radical difference from all other known forms of life -- only an 86% DNA match with its closest cousin, which is a huge difference; that's less similar than we are to tigers -- helps confirm that this is, in fact, Vostokian life and not surface contamination. (Although finding other, related life forms in the lake will tell us for sure)

The most important consequence of this discovery, along with similar discoveries of extremophiles -- tube worms living on suboceanic vents at 460°C, tardigrades which can survive the vacuum and radiation of space without ill effect -- is that we increasingly see evidence that life, of various forms, can survive nearly anywhere that organic molecules can hold together. Combined with our increasing understanding of the ubiquity of organic matter, our understanding of how much matter tends to get shipped around the Solar System, our discovery of rich and interesting sites like the subsurface saltwater oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa, and our discovery of the near-ubiquity of extrasolar planets, the odds that the universe is in fact teeming with life have never seemed higher. 

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