A vast lake buried beneath miles of ice in Antarctica hosts a dazzling array of life forms, say scientists.
Sampling ice cores from Lake Vostok, researchers have found evidence of more than 3,500 organisms, The Telegraph reports.
Writing in the scientific journal Plos ONE University of Ohio team leader Scott Rogers noted most of the organisms were bacteria -- many new to science.
"In addition, another major proportion of the sequences were from organisms that are symbionts of animals and/or plants," he added. "Over 35 million years ago, Lake Vostok was open to the atmosphere and was surrounded by a forested ecosystem. At that time, the lake, which might have been a marine bay, probably contained a complex network of organisms."
Indeed, the fact that the lake -- previously thought to be barren -- boasts such a wide variety of organisms is giving researchers fresh hope for finding life beyond Earth.
The fourth deepest lake on Earth, Vostok is the frozen continent's biggest sub-glacial lake, entombed by ice some 15 million years ago. The sheer weight of 2.5 miles (4 km) of ice exerts tremendous pressure and keeps the lake in a permanent state of darkness. Not entirely unlike conditions that could exist beneath the ice of moons such as Europa.
Scientists have long wondered what marvels may lurk deep beneath the surface of Jupiter's sixth closest moon.
"When it comes to Europa, there's no better analog on Earth than Lake Vostok," Kevin Hand, deputy chief scientist of solar system exploration for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told SPACE.com. "In both cases, the liquid water envelope trapped beneath the ice is cut off from the sun."