Contact: Annette Trinity-Stevens
Montana State University

Bozeman, MT–John Priscu has given presentations about his work in Antarctica under all kinds of conditions. He’s chatted with members of the National Science Board while standing on a glacier. He’s conducted media interviews via satellite from a wind-blown tent in the Antarctic Dry Valleys. And he’s lectured, in English, to foreign audiences around the world.

But he’s never had to talk with his hands, as he has been asked to do in San Francisco this Saturday (Feb. 17) during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Meeting organizers, fearful of rolling blackouts in California’s ongoing energy crisis, have asked the scientists to be ready to talk without the help of PowerPoint presentations, slide projectors, overheads or any other device requiring electricity. Presumably that means overhead lights as well.
“I can’t give a talk like this with my hands,îPriscu, a professor of ecology at Montana State University-Bozeman, protested about a week before leaving for San Francisco.

Indeed, the AAAS annual meeting is one of the nation’s largest scientific gatherings. Several hundred journalists attend the week-long affair, more than any other scientific meeting, to cover topics ranging from autoimmune disease in women to the mathematics of Congressional apportionments. Many of the speakers are invited owing to their novel ideas about science.

Priscu was asked to recap two major discoveries of “life in the ice”during a session on science at the Earth’s poles. The first discovery came in 1998 when Priscu’s team reported finding microbes thriving six feet deep in frozen lakes in the Antarctic Dry Valleys.

The second came last year. Priscu’s team found bacteria in an ice core drilled from deep within the East Antarctic ice sheet above Lake Vostok. The lake is a subglacial body of water the size of Lake Ontario. The microbes were trapped in ice about 11,800 feet below the surface of the ice sheet and about 495 feet above the lake.

Both discoveries were published in the journal Science and widely reported around the world.
Priscu also hopes to convince scientists that they should revise their thinking about the boundaries for life on the planet to include deep ice.

“We strongly believe that microbes live in and under the two- to four-kilometer thick Antarctic ice sheet and contribute to the global carbon cycle,” Priscu said. “Our next major task is to prove this.”

The work is analogous, Priscu has said, to studies aimed at discovering life on Mars and Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Astrobiology, or the search for life on other planets, is a hot topic now and is driving much of the public interest in discoveries like the ones in Antarctica, Priscu said, although that focus is only a small part of his work.

Priscu’s hunt for life in Antarctic ice will continue, a job that includes no shortage of scientific committee assignments. In one, he will advise the National Academy of Sciences on the international status of the United States in Antarctica. The U.S. is one of 26 Antarctic Treaty Nations currently exploring the bottom-most continent.


In another, he will co-convene an international group of experts interested in sampling the water from Lake Vostok without contaminating it–a feat for which the right technology doesn’t yet exist. Closer to home, Priscu teaches both undergraduate and graduate students, maintains an active, well-funded laboratory and plays in a local rock band.

When the responsibilities start to add up, he remembers the advice of a colleague, shared whilst the two were working on Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some years ago: “You can sleep when you are dead,”the Russian said.

He could also sleep if the lights go out in San Francisco.

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