Montana State University

MSU scientist featured in NSF commemoration of Darwin's birthday

February 12, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

John Priscu explains his Antarctic research during the open house for the new SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility at Montana State University. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University professor who studies life in the Antarctic ice is now part of an online special report commemorating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birthday.

The National Science Foundation invited John Priscu, land resources and environmental sciences, to write a 500-word essay on how Darwin's explanation of the origins of life and the diversity of species affected polar science, said Bobbie Mixon Jr., in NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs.

Priscu's essay and an NSF video interview with him were posted Feb. 12 as part of a special project called "The Evolution of Evolution." The essay and interview will stay in place until about June when they will be archived and replaced with another set of essays and interviews, Mixon said. The NSF invited scientists from five disciplines to participate in the Darwin project. Besides polar sciences, those fields were anthropology, astronomy, biology and the geosciences.

Priscu is a leading expert on polar ecology with 25 years of work in Antarctica. He investigates ecological processes that allow organisms to survive and thrive in ice sheets, sea ice and lake ice. The NSF has supported his research from the beginning. Darwin was born Feb. 12, 1809 and published "On the Origin of Species" Nov. 24, 1859.

Priscu said in his essay that recent discoveries of cold-loving microbes living in solid ice have extended the known boundaries of life on Earth and provided the basis for new theories on the origin and evolution of organisms on this planet.

"Data obtained over the past 10 years have shown that bacteria inhabit polar ice sheets as well as temperate glaciers, and contribute significantly to global bacterial carbon reservoirs," Priscu wrote.

He added that Darwin introduced the idea of life starting in a "warm little pond," but the pond "may in fact be a water system entombed in ice. The earth has been covered in ice much more than not during its evolution and the primordial soup of organic molecules would be a lot more stable in low temperatures, relative than, say, a hot spring."

Scientists need to do more research to determine whether life originated in hot or cold environments, but it is highly probable that cold environments acted as a refuge for life during major glaciations, Priscu said.

Priscu's full essay and interview are posted with the complete NSF report at

For a related article, see:
"Antarctica's coldest, darkest season draws MSU researchers" at

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or