File photo: By combining the data with airborne measures of surface ice and snow, scientists can now accurately measure changes in ice thickness and better understand the affects of global warming.

London - At a time of widespread belt-tightening and unremitting economic gloom, spending £8-million to look for microbes on the bed of a frozen lake might seem a costly distraction.

Not so. Drilling into the subglacial lakes of the Antarctic for the first time will revolutionise scientific understanding of both our own planet and, potentially, beyond.

Everything about the conditions under Lake Ellsworth's 3km-thick surface ice is extreme: the savage cold, the total darkness, the absolute isolation from the rest of Earth's biosphere for as much as half a million years.

Even the most basic information from the depths will provide a wealth of insights into the history of the Antarctic. But if there is life down there, the implications are immense indeed.

Evidence of so-called “extremophile” microbes increases the possibility that life exists in other, equally inhospitable places elsewhere in the universe - under the frozen oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's larger moons, for example. Hence Nasa's close interest in the programme.

The endeavour is, therefore, one with significant scientific potential. Under the auspices of the British Antarctic Survey, it is also a welcome example of Britain leading the pack. - The Independent