Billion Year Old Water Could Hold Clues to Life

Billion Year Old Water Could Hold Clues to Life

Scientists have discovered ancient pockets of water pouring out of boreholes from a mine 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) beneath Ontario, Canada. These pockets have been isolated deep underground for billions of years and contain abundant chemicals known to support life. Credit: University of Manchester

Researchers from the universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Toronto and McMaster have discovered ancient pockets of water rich in dissolved gases like hydrogen and methane pouring out of boreholes from a mine 2.4 kilometers beneath Canada that may hold clues to the origins of life.

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 water 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 red planet’s surface.

The findings, published in Nature on May 15, 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 analyzed water pouring out of boreholes from a mine 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) beneath Ontario, Canada.

They found that the water is rich in dissolved gases like hydrogen, methane, and different forms – called isotopes – of noble gases such as helium, neon, argon, and xenon. Indeed, there is as much hydrogen in the water as around hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, many of which teem with microscopic life.

Video shows ancient gas and water that flows from exploration boreholes in the Timmins mine 2.4km underground being collected for analysis at Manchester and Toronto universities. Credit: L. Li (2012)

The hydrogen and methane come from the interaction between the rock and water, as well as natural radioactive elements 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, said: “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 liters per minute. It has similar characteristics to far younger water flowing from a mine 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) below ground in South Africa that was previously found to support microbes.

Professor 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, said: “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, added: “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 characterize old, deep groundwater that may be a safe place to inject carbon dioxide.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: “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.”

Reference: “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 and C. J. Ballentine, 15 May 2013, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/nature12127

This work was funded by NSERC Discovery and CRC grants, a NERC grant, and Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) support.

2 Comments on "Billion Year Old Water Could Hold Clues to Life"

  1. Madanagopal.V.C | May 19, 2013 at 12:34 am | Reply

    Water is the elixir of life and it is found in Moon, Mars etc., the study of which may show the ancient hydrocarbons dissolved in them. This will be a tell-tale of the past biology of the planet. The radiological dating of carbon in the carbon compounds dissolved in them may show up the age and also the atmosphere prevailing then.Water as a good tool is indeed a boon to scientists. Similarly water in the comets which collided with the planets to form water contains very ancient amino-acids which are the life building blocks, which seem to be extra-planetary in origin. Thank You.

  2. Madanagopal.V.C | May 20, 2013 at 9:50 am | Reply

    Water is the elixir of life and extra planetary source of water through comets from oort cloud is responsible for all the water found on Moon, Mars etc. Since water contains assimilated carbons of all the ancient living beings, it is the best source to study the ancient life of the world. We can also assume that all the amino acids of the world could have been transported through extra terrestrial sources through water. Thank You.

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