Frost Flowers Could Deepen Our Understanding of Life

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Frost flowers, sharp-edged, ice-cold blossoms, grow off of imperfections in the surface of ice at extreme sub-zero temperatures. More than just amazing natural phenomenon, these spiky structures are home to islands of psychrophiles, or “cold-loving microbes.” Design blog This Is Colossal tells us that we’re seeing photos of these beautiful natural formations because Jeffrey Bowman from the Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program and his mentor Professor Jody Deming of the University of Washington Department of Oceanography broke cracks in the ice up in the Arctic Ocean.

Once room was created for these structure to take shape, “the cold, moist air above the open cracks becomes saturated and frost begins to form wherever an imperfection can be found.” Then given the opportunity, “flower-like frost structures” quickly grew vertically, rising to centimeters in height. “The hollow tendrils of these ‘frost flowers’ begin to wick moisture from the ice surface, incorporating salt, marine bacteria, and other substances as they grow.”

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The frost flowers are fascinating to these researchers because the microbes within them may provide answers as to how life survives in extreme conditions. “These delicate ice structures turn out to host microbes that survive to extremely cold temperatures, informing us about the limits of life when we search on other ice-covered planets and moons for possible extraterrestrial life. They also produce chemicals such as formaldehyde that may give clues about the origin of life on the early Earth.”

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Astrobiological studies are then also occurring on earth — as we are part of the same system, too: “Since many of the planets and moons in our solar system that might harbor life are very cold and covered in ice, determining the habitability of these planets and moons requires an understanding of the limits of life (as we know it) in the very coldest environments on Earth.”

According to the IGERT web site, Bowman and Deming are now working on an “ultra-clean chamber” where they can artificially grow these frost flowers, in order to determine how life can survive elsewhere in the universe.

Image credits: Matthias Wietz / IGERT

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