Montana State University

Mountains and Minds


Photo by Kelly Gorham.

Life in the extreme October 15, 2013 by Suzi Taylor • Published 10/15/13

John Priscu led a team of scientists that found bacteria deep under the Antarctic ice, a discovery that changes our understanding of life. And that may not be the most outrageous adventure he's had this year

He’s had four knee surgeries, two broken arms, a broken ankle and three broken ribs. He’s slid down a glacier, been trapped upside down in a raft, and had his teeth knocked out. And none of that slows John Priscu down.

Priscu, 61, might be considered the “extremest” of Montana State University’s extreme scientists. The professor in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences has made a career and a reputation out of studying the ends of the Earth. Literally. His specialty is discovering life in ice, particularly the world in and beneath polar ice sheets.

But it’s not only Priscu’s research that’s extreme.

For his 60th birthday, Priscu mountain biked the Curley Lake trail in the Tobacco Root Mountains alone, a 4,000+-foot elevation-gain grinder that one bike blogger called “probably the most strenuous trail I have ever done.”

Another biking adventure took Priscu across the ridge of the Bridger Mountains (not the trail, mind you, the RIDGE) from Fairy Lake to the steep face of the “M.” If you know this part of the world, you know this isn’t something sane people do on a bike.

He also flies his own bush plane, scuba dives, played semi-pro soccer in the U.S. and New Zealand, races a Porsche 911 and relaxes by riding his Harley-Davidson.

It’s exploits like these that prompted MSU’s student newspaper, the Exponent, to name Priscu its “Badass of the Week” September 2012. But it’s Priscu’s extreme research agenda that’s made him a regular on NPR, in The New York Times and Discover magazine, and in media outlets around the globe.

Priscu, who’s made 30 research trips to Antarctica, was a leader in one of the biggest scientific discoveries of 2013. As chief scientist for WISSARD, the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project, Priscu led a team of 52 interdisciplinary researchers, drillers and support specialists who used a hot-water drill system to burrow through the half-mile-thick West Antarctic Ice Sheet to access and sample liquid water.

Yes, you read that right—underneath a layer of ice as thick as the distance from Montana Hall to Bobcat Stadium lies an intricate system of liquid-water lakes.

"Antarctica was considered dead. It has never been considered part of our biosphere. The textbooks will now include Antarctica.
” —John Priscu

And there, in an extreme world where the surface temperature averages 50 below and the lakes have never seen the sun, Priscu’s team found life, a finding that has vast implications, not just for our world, but possibly for others.

“Antarctica was considered dead. It has never been considered part of our biosphere,” Priscu said. “The textbooks will now include Antarctica.”

Priscu said the discovery will give us a new perspective on the chemistry of the Southern Ocean’s organisms and the way that they modify the chemistry of their habitat. For instance, how do they change the ocean’s fertility, affecting fish, penguins and seals? The discovery of life also has implications for bio-prospecting: might these microbes harbor strange properties we can harness for pharmaceuticals or other materials?

And, added Priscu, as Earth’s astrobiologists continue to search for life elsewhere in the universe, Antarctica and its microbial life can serve as a sort of test bed.

“It’s an excellent model in our search for life on other icy worlds,” said Priscu. “We’ve been spending billions of dollars to use satellites—now we have a model on Earth. We can develop new tools and ideas here.”

Priscu grew up in Las Vegas. As a youth, he rode dirt bikes in the desert, and as a high school student, made pocket money playing a guitar on street corners. To put himself through school at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was captain of the soccer team, Priscu formed a band that played in casino lounges.

Priscu imagined himself as a musician. His friends were music majors, and some went on to great success in the industry. Priscu graduated from UNLV in biology with a minor in music, then traveled with his band, sleeping in his truck for months at a time while playing music every night and recording in the studio each day.

“It was a rough life,” he said. “Music is kind of a discipline…a job that you have to totally devote yourself to.”

When the band broke up, Priscu went back to UNLV for grad school where he earned his master’s in biology and ran a sampling program on the Lower Colorado River. His job required him to pilot a raft down the Grand Canyon and dive in the spillways of Hoover Dam.

Next up was the University of California, Davis, where Priscu earned his Ph.D. and ran a high mountain lakes research project in the Siskiyou Forest near Mount Shasta. One assignment required him to dive beneath the ice of high altitude frozen lakes and collect bottom sediment at depths exceeding 100 feet—the first of a series of cold-weather adventures that would come to define his career.

By the time he came to MSU in 1984, Priscu had already worked researching organisms in waters across the globe: He studied the biogeochemistry in lakes throughout New Zealand; phytoplankton in the Tasman Sea; lakes in central Europe; and he became one of the first U.S. scientists to study Lake Baikal—the largest lake on our planet, in eastern Siberia, when it was still part of the USSR.  Now, some three decades later, he has put MSU on the map for studying life in and under solid ice.

“We (the Priscu laboratory) started this whole stuff of ‘life in ice,’” said Priscu. “A lot of students have come here because of that.”

“There is a long legacy of MSU impact in Antarctic science. (MSU’s presence is) very obvious when you’re down there.”
—Susan Kelly, an MSU outreach specialist

Among the MSU collaborators on various polar projects who helped develop the field of science are Mark Skidmore (earth sciences), Christine Foreman (LRES), the late Warren Jones (civil engineering) and Ed Adams (civil engineering). In 2006, Priscu and Adams, who is a close friend as well as colleague, obtained funding to construct MSU’s Subzero Science and Engineering Research Facility, a state-of-the-art laboratory dedicated to cold temperature research.

“There is a long legacy of MSU impact in Antarctic science,” said Susan Kelly, an MSU outreach specialist who shared photos, videos and dispatches from Antarctica as part of the WISSARD team. “(MSU’s presence is) very obvious when you’re down there.”

And, the success of his research collaborations was a key factor in bringing the International Polar and Alpine Microbiology Conference to Montana this fall. Priscu was the organizer and chair of the prestigious meeting in Big Sky Resort, which attracted renowned scientists from around the globe.

“Current subglacial lake exploration efforts are a direct result of efforts by John (and others) over the last 15 years,” said Brent Christner, who was a postdoctoral researcher under Priscu and is now a professor at Louisiana State University.

“John has a loyal following of Ph.D.s and postdocs still working in Antarctic science,” Kelly said. “They’re becoming the scientists of the future.”

Priscu’s not the kind of guy who sits still much. He works with partners around the globe, including a trip this summer to Tibet to study life in Himalayan glaciers and high altitude lakes with a Chinese collaborator.

Priscu remains passionate about music, and for nearly 20 years, he’s written songs and played guitar for Textbook Blues, a band comprised primarily of MSU faculty. The group plays at venues like Chico Hot Springs and the Filling Station and has released one CD and is working on a second.

“He’s a very good musician. He can do anything with a guitar,” said lead singer Edis Kittrell, an MSU English instructor.

“I can go anywhere in the world and I’ve found two things that are a common language,” said Priscu. “I can always play soccer…and I could always play music. You put a chart in front of me, and it’s a common language… and then the third thing is science.”

The same year that Priscu came to MSU marked his first visit to Antarctica, supported by grants from the New Zealand government and the National Science Foundation.

“When you go down the first time, it’s for the adventure,” said Priscu. “There’s some mystique. You kind of fall in love with it.”

In the three decades that have passed since that first visit, Priscu has traveled to Antarctica every year. Several seasons, he said, stand out as “epic.”

In 1991, Priscu’s four-person team started out in August (Antarctica’s winter) and finished in December. “No one had ever done it before,” he said. They battled 90 mph winds and nearly 24-hour darkness.

“You had to tie yourself off onto rocks,” said Priscu. “If you were knocked over onto the ice, you would just keep going.”

During the 1995–96 season, notable for its extreme cold, ranging between minus 47 and minus 52 F, Priscu led a team of 12 who flew in on Navy helicopters to sample lakes in the Transantarctic Mountains. He spent long days outside drilling and sampling ice and sleeping in a tent each night. His coldest night in a tent was with MSU colleague Ed Adams—the outside temperature dropped to minus 52 F.

In 2007–08 the team stayed from November to April and watched the 24-hour sunlight of summer transition to the darkness of polar night. The U.S. Air Force flew in a C-17 cargo aircraft to extract his team of 17 scientists and 110 support staff, landing and taking off from an ice runway using night vision goggles, a first for the Air Force.

Yet, this past season may stand out as the apex.

Both British and Russian teams had worked to be the first to collect subglacial lake samples, but both failed: The British drill broke, and, while the Russians managed to procure samples, there were concerns that they might be contaminated. That put the spotlight on the Americans.

While “the Antarctic ice sheet is just flat and white,” Priscu said, radar and satellite imaging indicate the presence of more than 300 lakes under an ice sheet 2.5 miles thick. It may seem improbable to find liquid water in a place where surface air temperatures average minus 50 degrees F, but Priscu said geothermal heating and volcanic areas under the ice warm the area. Additionally, the pressure freezing point of water is lower, and the ice sheet acts as an insulator, protecting the subglacial environment from the extremely cold air overlying the ice sheet.

“It’s like a big down blanket,” Priscu said.

After hauling the team’s 140,000 tons of equipment from the U.S. via vessel and aircraft, and then sledding it 628 miles across the ice via tractor, the WISSARD drill began working its way through the ice sheet. On Jan. 28, they hit pay dirt.

Priscu’s team then examined the water samples that came from beneath, looking for signs of life. The expedition was heavily followed by the media, and Priscu put reporters from Nature, the Washington Post and The New York Times on hold while they ran tests.

“I wanted three lines of evidence” before announcing that the subglacial environment contained organisms, Priscu said.

He found them.

The team saw microorganisms under the microscope and found evidence of both respiration and ATP, the energy that fuels the chemistry of a cell. Priscu called The New York Times, which ran the headline “Scientists find life in the cold and dark under Antarctic ice.”

“I think it’s a pretty big discovery on a global scale,” Priscu said. Microorganisms may not be big, but “if you got rid of them, all humans would die.”

The findings also have celestial implications.

“Life on earth is tenacious. Everywhere we have looked we have found life. A discovery of life in an environment analogous to the icy worlds of other planets and moons (specifically Europa) is exciting,” said Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology program, whom Priscu first met in Antarctica in 1984. The two collaborated on a manuscript in the journal Science that provided the first evidence for life more than two miles beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Priscu said that, in the short period after last season’s discovery of life beneath the ice sheet was announced, the websites for his lab and the WISSARD project received half a billion hits.

Priscu’s work has resulted in plenty of honors. Both a stream and a valley in Antarctica have been named for him. He has received the International Excellence in Antarctic Science medal and the Goldthwaite Award from the Byrd Polar Research Center for his accomplishments in glaciology. He has published more than 200 scientific manuscripts and edited four books. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the American Geophysical Union, and has served on numerous national and international committees to advance science and education.

“He works so hard and at such a high level,” Kelly said. “He’s probably the hardest-working professor I’ve ever worked with.”

“I love watching my students…. I think science is a total art, and I try to impress that on my students. You have to sit back and think of the picture you want to paint. I tell my students, ‘You come in here, and you have an unpainted canvas in front of you—let’s see what you can paint in four years.’”
—John Priscu

Priscu says he takes pleasure in sharing the adventure with his students—nearly 200 MSU students have accompanied him on Antarctic expeditions.

“I love watching my students…. I think science is a total art, and I try to impress that on my students. You have to sit back and think of the picture you want to paint. I tell my students, ‘You come in here, and you have an unpainted canvas in front of you—let’s see what you can paint in four years.’”

“John taught me how to do science and reinforced in me the idea that if you are not having fun, then it is not worth it,” said Cristina Takacs-Vesbach, a professor at the University of New Mexico who was once an MSU Ph.D. student under Priscu.

Takacs-Vesbach and Priscu now have two collaborative projects and spent several months in Antarctica this past season.

“We had a blast working together, but more importantly, it made me realize how extraordinary John is in that he is still personally doing hardcore experimental field work after all these years,” she said. “Not many (principal investigators) can say that they still do the work that goes into their papers, and it reminded me that I want to stay as engaged in my research program as he is.”

Priscu’s taken dozens of trips to Antarctica and spent some cumulative 7.3 years of living in a tent on the ice. He admits he’s away more often than he’d like and says he’d love to spend more time with his daughter, Holly, of Missoula. He also credits his wife, Barbara, for her support: “She puts up with my long absences while in the field and the long days I spend in my office.”

And, he’s been at MSU for nearly 30 years. Many employees who earn that metaphorical gold pin are starting to daydream about timeshares and golf carts. But Priscu is doing anything but winding down.

In fact, he’s immersed in planning his next WISSARD expedition, an astounding logistical puzzle of transportation, food, fuel, shelter and gear required to keep 50 people alive and functioning in an inhospitable world.

And, the man who’s done about everything and been just about everywhere—has another destination on his list.

“I’d like to go to Mars,” he said. “That would be a trip, yeah. That would be really cool.”