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Why you should care about Lake Vostok

If scientists find life in Antarctica's Lake Vostok, an ancient freshwater body locked beneath two miles of ice, it will greatly boost hopes of the existence of life on other worlds.  

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This image provided by the NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program shows the first live tubeworm seen at a hydrothermal vent site in Atlantic waters during the August 2011 expedition. Russian scientists examine samples from Lake Vostok, which hasn't seen light or wind for 20 million years, they may find microbes. If so, it'll show again that no matter how harsh, life finds a way to survive in the strangest places on Earth.

NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program/AP/File

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If scientists find microbes in a frigid lake two miles beneath the thick ice of Antarctica, it will illustrate once again that somehow life finds a way to survive in the strangest and harshest places.

And it will offer hope that life exists beyond Earth.

Russian researchers reported Wednesday that they had reached Lake Vostok, a pristine body of water untouched by light or wind for about 20 million years. They want to know what type of microbial life — bacteria too small to see — might exist there.

Finding microbes may not sound like much. But they were the first form of Earth life eons before plants and animals existed.

If scientists find these tiny germs in Lake Vostok, it bolsters already strong hope that elsewhere in our solar system, life also might exist where once it didn't seem possible.

There are plenty of examples of life forms existing in the most improbable of places:

—A tiny shrimp was captured on a NASA video floating under thick ice sheets in a different part of Antarctica.

—Tubeworms somehow get needed energy from violent hydrothermal vents in the deepest Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

—A germ called "the world's toughest bacterium" by the Guinness Book of World Records and also termed "Conan the Bacterium" was found 55 years ago in a can of meat. It survives and even repairs itself in radiation that would be deadly to cockroaches.

—In the highly acidic Rio Tinto in Spain, where you dare not stick a hand, life thrives.

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