Herald science reporter Jamie Morton is profiling a series of new studies taking place in Antarctica, where he travels to this month. Today, he talks to the University of Waikato's Professor Craig Cary.

Hidden within Antarctica's most active volcano could be a key to understanding life on other planets – and now scientists plan to drill into it.

The geothermal features found on Mt Erebus, overlooking New Zealand's Scott Base, are home to an abundance of micro-organisms with some extremely unusual features.

Scientists believe they may even have the potential to change how we understand life itself.

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In a previous study, Waikato University microbiologist Professor Craig Cary and colleagues dug just 12cm into the soil on the mountain to find a remarkable variety of bacteria living just below the surface.

Cary said those very near the surface were very closely related with other such organisms living in geothermal systems elsewhere in the world – a finding that suggested these microscopic beings were being continually dispersed around the planet through the atmosphere.

"In this case, they could have originated from a massive volcano going off sometime in the past and moving them around the world and into other geothermal sites."

But, more interestingly, they also discovered bacteria that are not only appear endemic to Erebus but ancient when compared to those living today.

"As we went deeper and deeper into the soil, it wasn't just novel bacteria we were finding – but possibly bacteria that are adapting to the novel geochemistry, or gases, at Erebus," he said.

"We have known for over a hundred years that there are bacteria that can live and grow on energy bound up in certain chemicals common to geothermal systems when normal carbon-based food is limited.

"What is new on Erebus is that these chemicals are not abundant and yet we find bacteria thriving in this carbon limited environment."

"We know there's a lot of unique geochemistry on Erebus – but so far have not figured out how any bacteria are actually able to utilise it."

In a new three-year programme, just awarded a $935,000 grant from the Marsden Fund, a team led by Cary and Dr Matt Stott of the University of Canterbury will return to Erebus to investigate further.

Mt Erebus, near Scott Base, is Antarctica's second-highest volcano and the southern-most active on Earth. Photo / File
Mt Erebus, near Scott Base, is Antarctica's second-highest volcano and the southern-most active on Earth. Photo / File

They'd first drill directly into the volcano and use some new exciting approaches to grow the bacteria, before using a range of genomic methods to work out how they function and survive.

The team hoped to uncover new biological mechanisms for life that have never been seen, yet remained theoretically feasible.

"Put simply, we only know what we know," Cary said.

"Our current notion of life is very constrained around what we've already found and have been able to grow.

Professor Craig Cary, with the Antarctic Genetic Archive Cabinet at the University of Waikato. Photo / File
Professor Craig Cary, with the Antarctic Genetic Archive Cabinet at the University of Waikato. Photo / File

"And, at Erebus, we believe there is an isolated system with novel geochemistry that can drive completely unusual mechanisms to support life – and this would be appropriate for looking for life on other planets."

It's not the only major new study exploring Antarctica's incredible microbial communities.

Another project, led by Cary's Waikato University colleague Dr Adele Williamson, is attempting to reveal how the hardy microbes that live amid the McMurdo Dry Valleys' alien-like conditions can survive by repairing their own DNA.