Billion-year-old water could hold clues to life on Earth and Mars

May 15, 2013

A UK-Canadian team of scientists has discovered ancient pockets of water, which have been isolated deep underground for billions of years and contain abundant chemicals known to support life.

This could be some of the oldest on the planet and may even contain life. Not just that, but the similarity between the rocks that trapped it and those on Mars raises the hope that comparable life-sustaining water could lie buried beneath the 's surface.

The findings, published in Nature today, may force us to rethink which parts of our planet are fit for life, and could reveal clues about how microbes evolve in isolation.

Researchers from the universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Toronto and McMaster analysed water pouring out of from a mine 2.4 kilometres beneath Ontario, Canada.

They found that the water is rich in dissolved gases like hydrogen, and different forms – called isotopes – of such as helium, neon, and . Indeed, there is as much hydrogen in the water as around in the , many of which teem with .

The hydrogen and methane come from the interaction between the rock and water, as well as natural in the rock reacting with the water. These gases could provide energy for microbes that may not have been exposed to the sun for billions of years.

The crystalline rocks surrounding the water are thought to be around 2.7 billion years old. But no-one thought the water could be the same age, until now.

Using ground-breaking techniques developed at the University of Manchester, the researchers show that the fluid is at least 1.5 billion years old, but could be significantly older.

NERC-funded Professor Chris Ballentine of the University of Manchester, co-author of the study, and project director, says:

'We've found an interconnected fluid system in the deep Canadian crystalline basement that is billions of years old, and capable of supporting life. Our finding is of huge interest to researchers who want to understand how microbes evolve in isolation, and is central to the whole question of the origin of life, the sustainability of life, and life in extreme environments and on other planets.'

Before this finding, the only water of this age was found trapped in tiny bubbles in rock and is incapable of supporting life. But the water found in the Canadian mine pours from the rock at a rate of nearly two litres per minute. It has similar characteristics to far younger water flowing from a mine 2.8 kilometres below ground in South Africa that was previously found to support .

Ballentine and his colleagues don't yet know if the underground system in Canada sustains life, but Dr Greg Holland of Lancaster University, lead author of the study says:

'Our Canadian colleagues are trying to find out if the water contains life right now. What we can be sure of is that we have identified a way in which planets can create and preserve an environment friendly to microbial life for billions of years. This is regardless of how inhospitable the surface might be, opening up the possibility of similar environments in the subsurface of Mars.'

Professor Ballentine, based in Manchester's School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, adds:

'While the questions about life on Mars raised by our work are incredibly exciting, the ground-breaking techniques we have developed at Manchester to date ancient waters also provide a way to calculate how fast methane gas is produced in ancient rock systems globally. The same new techniques can be applied to characterise old, deep groundwater that may be a safe place to inject carbon dioxide.'

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, says:

'This is excellent pioneering research. It gives new insight into our planet. It has also developed new technology for carbon capture and storage projects. These have the potential for growth, job creation and our environment.'

Explore further: Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

More information: Deep fracture fluids isolated in the crust since the Precambrian era, by G. Holland, B. Sherwood Lollar, L. Li, G. Lacrampe-Couloume, G. F. Slater & C. J. Ballentine, in Nature, 16 May 2013. dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12127

Related Stories

'Underground Galapagos' excites scientists

Mar 16, 2013

Diverse underground ecosystems buried deep beneath the Earth's crust may offer clues to the origins of life on Earth, several recent studies have revealed.

Microbes surviving deep inside oceanic crust

Mar 15, 2013

(Phys.org) —A new study shows for the first time that microorganisms are thriving deep within the oceanic crust under the sea floor, and hence far from light or oxygen.

Asteroid sites hint at life on Mars

Apr 16, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Craters made by asteroid impacts may be the best place to look for signs of life on other planets, a study suggests.

Moroccan desert meteorite delivers Martian secrets

Oct 11, 2012

(Phys.org)—A meteorite that landed in the Moroccan desert 14 months ago is providing more information about Mars, the planet where it originated. University of Alberta researcher Chris Herd helped in the ...

Recommended for you

Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

Apr 18, 2014

A powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook central and southern Mexico on Friday, sending panicked people into the streets. Some walls cracked and fell, but there were no reports of major damage or casualties.

User comments : 0

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...