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Beneath Arctic ice pack, teeming life holds extraterrestrial clues

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The $20 million project, led by Arctic climatologist Dave Barber of the University of Manitoba, is part of Canada's contribution to International Polar Year, a multinational effort aimed at researching the polar regions. Atmospheric chemists, physicists, oceanographers, and marine biologists from Asia, North America, and Europe are studying the place where the Arctic Ocean's multiyear sea ice meets one-year, land-fast ice in the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

With funding from the US National Science Foundation, Ms. Deming has been focusing on the nepheloid layer – clouds of water-borne particles above the ocean floor – as well as halophiles, tough, "salt-loving" microorganisms that thrive in superchilled liquid brine channels within the ice.

Microbes on Europa?

Deming believes the bacteria and viruses in these channels in polar sea ice could provide clues about possible life on Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa.

"When we think astrobiologically, we think of the initial microbes, similar to ones that gained a foothold on Earth 3.8 billion years ago," she says. "Europa is a very promising situation because all the evidence points to an ocean under the ice cover and heat under the ocean."

Astrobiology is a decades-old scientific discipline bringing together astronomy, biology, and geology. It examines whether microorganisms living in extreme heat and cold on Earth could tell us what kind of life forms might exist on other celestial bodies.

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