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BYU professor discovers ‘dead zone’ in Antarctica

Aug 30, 2021, 8:48 AM

PROVO, Utah — In the history of science, there have been big discoveries and little discoveries, fantastic findings and obscure observations. But here’s a very special case: A professor at Brigham Young University is gaining attention for literally discovering “nothing.”

Professor Byron Adams led a team that found a landscape with absolutely no living things whatsoever and no evidence that anything ever lived there. The dead-zone is in Antarctica, but it’s not on ice.

It’s on bare ground.

“That’s really surprising,” Adams said in an on-campus interview, “because, you know, any other place that you go on Earth you would find microbes.”

The finding of nothing at all may have implications for whether we will ever find life on other planets.

For his lab work, Adams sometimes puts on a winter coat, even when the temperature reaches 100 degrees on campus. The scientific souvenirs he brings back from his expeditions are kept in a walk-in freezer which keeps them at around 17 or 18 degrees below zero. The shelves are stocked with plastic bags stuffed with, well, frozen dirt.

“These are all samples of soils that have been collected from Antarctica over the years,” he said.

Adams has traveled to Antarctica almost annually for the last 20 years. His primary effort is studying soil samples to see how biological ecosystems have adapted, over tens of thousands of years, to major shifts in climate. His goal is to understand how ecosystems might respond in the future to climate change.

“Not just in Antarctica,” he said, “but places where we grow food, where we have to manage forests, and things like that.”

When his research team went into an Antarctic region known as the Dry Valleys, where huge glaciers disappeared thousands of years ago, they discovered something completely unexpected. In the brutally cold, fearsomely dry environment, they collected soil samples to check for living things such as microbes. They found, precisely, nothing.

“We couldn’t even detect DNA in these samples,” Adams said. “No life there, period. At least not in the last 20, 30,000 years or so.”

He’s not sure how big the dead-zone is. He thinks it’s probably less than 50 square miles. But even that is astonishing to a biologist like Adams.

“Sounds really boring, like, we went someplace, found a bunch of dirt, it didn’t have anything in it,” he said, chuckling over the ironic discovery. “But at the same time, you know, that’s a big deal.”

It’s a big deal because elsewhere on Earth, almost everywhere, living things thrive, often under miserable and even hostile conditions. Healthy living things have been found deep underground and in the highly acidic boiling-hot springs of Yellowstone. There are even healthy living ecosystems in the bottom of the deep seas where life is thriving at hydrothermal vents in super-heated water under extremely high pressures.

But if nothing at all can live in certain cold, dry regions of Antarctica, it means that the resilience of life has its limits.

“It tells us something about the boundary conditions for life,” Adams said. “Life as we know it, anyway, and where it can live here on Earth.”

The finding will, no doubt, be a disappointment to those who hope to someday learn that life is thriving on other planets. After all, if there are places on the surface of our own Earth where life cannot survive, what does that tell us about really inhospitable places like Mars?

“These conditions in Antarctica are very similar to the surface conditions on Mars,” Adams said. “However, you know, Mars hasn’t always been like this. And so, there’s certainly a possibility that at one time, Mars was certainly habitable.”

If so, our cold, dry neighbor in the solar system could stand as a warning. It’s entirely possible that life on Mars was driven into extinction by climate change — if life ever existed there in the first place.

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BYU professor discovers ‘dead zone’ in Antarctica