Media Releases

Billions-year-old sparkling water may hold clues for life on Earth and Mars

May 15, 2013

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TORONTO – A team of sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty in the Unit­ed King­dom have gone three kilo­me­tres beneath the sur­face of the Cana­di­an Shield to find some of the old­est flu­ids in our planet’s his­to­ry. The waters are rich in clues about lives lived with­out sun­light on Earth and pos­si­bly on Mars. Their dis­cov­ery will be pub­lished in the May 16 issue of Nature.

“The saline waters bub­bling out of frac­tures in the rocks are not unlike the black smok­er flu­ids found at deep sea hydrother­mal vents,” said Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Bar­bara Sher­wood Lol­lar, a geo­chemist in U of T’s Depart­ment of Earth Sci­ences. “The water is the prod­uct of geo­chem­i­cal reac­tions with the rock and con­tains dis­solved hydro­gen, as well as noble gas­es – heli­um, neon, argon and par­tic­u­lar­ly xenon – that have been trapped since ear­ly in Earth’s his­to­ry.” Noble gas iso­topes from radi­ogenic reac­tions in the rock accu­mu­late in water over time enabling sci­en­tists to cal­cu­late that these waters have col­lect­ed the by-prod­ucts of water-rock inter­ac­tion for more than a bil­lion years – pos­si­bly even back to the for­ma­tion of these ancient rocks more than 2.7 bil­lion years ago.

The team behind this lat­est dis­cov­ery is part of the same group that iden­ti­fied some of the deep­est chemolithotroph­ic – rock and chem­i­cal-eat­ing – micro­bial com­mu­ni­ties found to date. In 2006, at 2.8 km below the sur­face in South African gold mines, they found hydro­gen-uti­liz­ing sul­fate-reduc­ing microbes eking out an exis­tence in saline frac­ture waters that have been cut off from the sun for tens of mil­lions of years.

“The ancient waters of the Cana­di­an Shield con­tain abun­dant chem­i­cals that we know microbes can use as ener­gy in the absence of sun­light-dri­ven pho­to­syn­the­sis,” said Sher­wood Lol­lar. “This shows that ancient rocks have the poten­tial to sup­port life and this could be the case whether they are three kilo­me­tres below the Earth’s sur­face or below the sur­face of Mars.” Large regions of Mars are made up of ter­rain like that of the Earth’s Pre­cam­bri­an Shield – bil­lions of years-old rocks with sim­i­lar min­er­al­o­gy.

The Cana­di­an Shield dis­cov­ery puts the age of the flu­ids much far­ther back in time than the South Africa dis­cov­ery, iden­ti­fy­ing a ground­wa­ter sys­tem that has been iso­lat­ed from the planet’s sur­face for bil­lions, rather than tens of mil­lions of years. “Our dis­cov­ery estab­lish­es that ancient flu­ids, hith­er­to thought to have sur­vived only in micro­scop­ic flu­id inclu­sions trapped in the rocks, may instead still flow from ancient frac­tures,” said Sher­wood Lol­lar.

The team hopes answers can be found to oth­er press­ing ques­tions such as how wide­spread are ancient flu­ids trapped in the sub­sur­face? What range of flu­id ages might be pre­served in the Cana­di­an Shield and in bil­lions-year-old rocks world­wide? How do microbes, if any can be found, in these very ancient flu­ids com­pare to those dis­cov­ered in South Africa, and to sur­face life?

“These are like trapped time cap­sules,” said Sher­wood Lol­lar. “They may tell us about the atmos­phere 2.7 bil­lion years ago, and about the flu­ids that formed the valu­able ore deposits that are the foun­da­tion of Canada’s min­er­al wealth.”

Team mem­bers include co-prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Sher­wood Lol­lar and her post­doc­tor­al fel­low Long Li, co-prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Christo­pher Bal­len­tine and post­doc­tor­al fel­low Greg Hol­land, both of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter and Greg Slater from McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty. Fund­ing was pro­vid­ed by a Dis­cov­ery grant from Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da and the Cana­da Research Chairs Pro­gram, the Nation­al Envi­ron­ment Research Coun­cil in the UK and the Deep Car­bon Obser­va­to­ry Deep Ener­gy Project.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Bar­bara Sher­wood Lol­lar
Depart­ment of Earth Sci­ences
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Kim Luke
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to