This Lake’s not for Swimming

The scientific community is holding its breath for a team of Russian scientists that has been out of contact with colleagues in the U.S for six days, as they drill through the ice to obtain access to a lake buried beneath the Antarctic ice for 20 million years.

Lake Vostok lies in the middle of the Antarctic continent and is buried more than two miles beneath the ice.

Lake Vostok circled in red

Luckily for them, it’s not winter down there yet, but it is fast approaching. They currently only have to contend with temperatures of minus 66C (-87F).

The expedition has to evacuate their station by Tuesday,  when winter proper kicks in and temperatures start to drop to an less hospitable minus 85C ( -121F). On July 21, 1983, temperatures at Vostok Station hit the lowest level ever recorded on Earth – minus 89.2C (-128.56F) That’s chilly bean, baby!

Geothermal heat under the ice keeps the lake liquid, and its conditions are often described as ‘alien’ because they are thought to be akin to the subterranean lakes on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Valery Lukin, chief of the Russian Antactic Expedition, said last month: “We do not know what is waiting for us down there.”

Last year scientists working the lake were unable to break through but came within ten to 50 meters (33 to 165 feet) of the surface.

Robin E. Bell, a researcher at Columbia University who has visited the region, told reporters that the team is focused on getting their job done while they still can, and it is premature to fear the worst.

Microbiologist Dr. David A. Pearce, a scientist on a competing mission to plumb the depths of another Antarctic lake, had been in contact with the Russians, but is now in the dark as well.

Ms. Bell said: “I wouldn’t read too much into it. When you’re doing something very challenging, the last thing you want to do is chat to people”.

Regarding the working conditions, Dr Pearce said, “If you left your eyes open, the fluid in them would start to freeze. Your nostrils would start to freeze. The moisture in your mouth would start to freeze.”

He added: “It’s not just physically challenging, it’s psychologically challenging. You’re away from your family and friends, and there’s pressure to deliver the science you’ve promised.”

They are hoping water in the lake, the most inhospitable region of the planet, would reveal more about ancient life on our planet. The water inside the lake will have had no contact with man-made pollutants or Earthly life forms for millions of years.

The world can only wait to hear what has become of the explorers.

When they finally do breakthrough, great care must be taken not to contaminate the hidden underground lake with bacteria and drilling fluids.

To make sure the water stays completely pure, the machinery will not even touch the lake surface.

Instead they will use suction will to extract samples of the unique water into the borehole, where it will freeze before being raised to the surface for analysis.

The team also faces the risk of a potential explosion with oxygen and nitrogen trapped below. To avert this risk, the team will try to make sure only a small amount of air can escape.

John Priscu, a Montana State University Antarctic researcher, told the Washington Post the Russian scientists told him they were just 40ft from where the waterline is thought to lie.

He told the Post, “This is a huge moment for science and exploration, breaking through to this enormous lake that we didn’t even know existed until the 1990s.”

Priscu added, “If it goes well, a breakthrough opens up a whole new chapter in our understanding of our planet and possibly moons in our solar system and planets far beyond. If it doesn’t go well, it casts a pall over the whole effort to explore this wet underside of Antarctica.”

Priscu insists the Russians are not lost. “What I can tell you is that they are doing something that has never been done before. Think of it, sampling a lake under 2.5 miles of ice at a location that is the highest, driest and coldest desert on our planet.”

“I don’t think there’s anything sinister or ominous,” he added. “The Russians have their own way of dealing with things, particularly the media, which I respect.”

Specialists at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute predict they will find “the only giant super-clean water system on the planet”.

They forecast the extraordinary 5,400 cubic kilometers (3355 cubic miles) of water in the pristine prehistoric lake, encased by ice since before man existed, will be “twice cleaner than double-distilled water”.

There is also the strong prospect of discovering completely unknown life forms in its clear ancient waters.

The worst possible scenario could be the water suddenly shooting up through the hole when the breakthrough is made. “Up to a quarter of the lake’s water could shoot out of the hole”, Dr Priscu said, if their worst fears are realized.

For now, we’ll all have to just wait and wonder if they will accomplish what they set out to do, or have died trying.

Attribution: Rob Cooper and Thomas DuranteH

So the Native Americans aren’t Native?

Altai in southern Siberia sits right at the centre of Russia. But the tiny, mountainous republic has a claim to fame unknown until now – Native Americans can trace their origins to the remote region.

DNA research revealed that genetic markers linking people living in the Russian republic of Altai, southern Siberia, with indigenous populations in North America.

A study of the mutations indicated a lineage shift between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago – when people are thought to have walked across the ice from Russia to America

This roughly coincides with the period when humans from Siberia are thought to have crossed what is now the Bering strait and entered America.

“Altai is a key area because it’s a place where people have been coming and going for thousands and thousands of years”, said Dr Theodore Schurr, from the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the people who may have emerged from the Altai region are the predecessors of the first Native Americans.

Roughly 20-25,000 years ago, these prehistoric humans carried their Asian genetic lineages up into the far reaches of Siberia and eventually across the then-exposed Bering land mass into the Americas.

“Our goal in working in this area was to better define what those founding lineages or sister lineages are to Native American populations,” Schurr said.
The region lies at the intersection of what is now Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.

Dr Schurr’s team checked Altai DNA samples for markers in mitochondrial DNA which is always passed on by mothers, and Y chromosome DNA which sons inherit from their fathers.

Because of the large number of gene markers examined, the findings have a high degree of precision.

“At this level of resolution we can see the connections more clearly,” Schurr said.

Looking at the Y chromosome DNA, the researchers found a unique mutation shared by Native Americans and southern Altaians in the lineage known as Q.

Mitochondrial DNA is found in tiny rod-like ‘powerplants’ in cells that generate energy. Both kinds of DNA showed links between Altaians and Native Americans.

In the Y chromosome DNA, the researchers found a unique mutation shared by Native Americans and people from southern Altai.

The findings are published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Calculating how long the mutations they noted took to arise, Schurr’s team estimated that the southern Altaian lineage diverged genetically from the Native American lineage 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, a timing scenario that aligns with the idea of people moving into the Americas from Siberia between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Though it’s possible, even likely, that more than one wave of people
crossed the land bridge, Schurr said that other researchers have not yet been able to identify another similar geographic focal point from which Native Americans can trace their heritage.

“It may change with more data from other groups, but, so far, even with intensive work in Mongolia, they’re not seeing the same things that we are”, he said.

In addition to elucidating the Asia-America connection, the study confirms that the modern cultural divide between southern and northern Altaians has ancient genetic roots

Attribution: Daily Mail

Coffee is Found to Reduce the Risk of Diabetes

From ACS (American Chemical Society): New evidence that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of diabetes.

Why do heavy coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, a disease on the increase around the world that can lead to serious health problems? Scientists are offering a new solution to that long-standing mystery in an ACS, ‘Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry’ report.

Scientists are reporting new evidence that drinking coffee may help prevent diabetes and that caffeine may be the ingredient largely responsible for this effect. Their findings are among the first animal studies to demonstrate this apparent link.

Ling Zheng, Kun Huang and colleagues explain that previous studies show that coffee drinkers are at a lower risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90-95 percent of diabetes cases in the world.

Those studies show that people who drink four or more cups of coffee daily have a 50 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and every additional cup of coffee brings another decrease in risk of almost 7 percent.

Scientists have implicated the misfolding of a substance called human islet amyloid polypeptide (hIAPP)

Full length human islet amyloid polypeptide (hIAPP)

in causing Type 2 diabetes, and some are seeking ways to block that process. Zheng and Huang decided to see if coffee’s beneficial effects might be due to substances that block hIAPP.

Indeed, they did identify two categories of compounds in coffee that significantly inhibited hIAPP. They suggest that this effect explains why coffee drinkers show a lower risk for developing diabetes. “A beneficial effect may thus be expected for a regular coffee drinker”, the researchers conclude.

The scientists fed either water or coffee to a group of laboratory mice commonly used to study diabetes.

Coffee consumption prevented the development of high-blood sugar and also improved insulin
sensitivity in the mice, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

Coffee also caused a cascade of other beneficial changes in the fatty liver and inflammatory adipocytokines related to a reduced diabetes risk.

Additional lab studies showed that caffeine may be “one of the most effective anti-diabetic compounds in coffee,” the scientists say.