Researchers have found evidence that the world’s oldest water, found deep below ground in northern Ontario, could harbour microbial life that’s totally ‘alien’ to life on the surface.
The water was discovered 2.4 Km deep in a mine back in 2013, and it’s estimated to possess been cut-off from the surface for up to 2.64 billion years – almost half our planet’s history.
Now researchers have shown that the water has its own self-sustaining life-support system, which suggests it’s possible that exotic life has been evolving under there, separately to life on the surface – and without sunlight or atmospheric oxygen – for billions of years.
They’ve also found circumstantial evidence of an unidentified type of microbial life – although we’re long-way off verifying that directly.
For now, all we all know is that it’s possible that microbial communities are evolving in parallel to life as we all know it, deep below the planet’s surface. And this means that an equivalent thing might be happening on Mars.
“This continues to open up our idea of what proportion of this planet is habitable,” Barbara Sherwood Lollar, one among the researchers from the University of Toronto, told Ivan Semeniuk from The Globe and Mail. “And it speaks to the habitability of Mars also .”
Researchers had already found microbes living in similar ancient water that runs through the cracks of ancient rocks deep below bottom of the ground in South Africa .
But the Canadian water has been isolated for 10 times longer – since before the Cambrian explosion that saw most of our modern species evolve – which suggests there’s been many time for strange life to evolve down there.
To figure out whether that was even possible, a team of researchers collected samples of ancient water from boreholes at the Kidd mine, & tested its mineral content.
What they were curious about was whether or not it contained sulphur.
Pretty much all life on Earth gets its energy from chemical reactions that shift electrons from one place to a different . For us, that involves getting electrons from our foods & shifting it onto the oxygen that we breathe.
But some sorts of bacteria have evolved alternate pathways – they use hydrogen gas the source of electrons, and a type of dissolved sulphur referred to as sulphate, because the destination for the electrons.
The researchers already knew that there was many hydrogen in Canada’s ancient water, & therefore the latest research showed there’s also enough sulphate to sustain life.
The sulphur comes from a mineral called pyrite within the surrounding rocks, and is eventually weakened by the rocks’ natural radioactivity & dissolved into the water. And consistent with the team’s measurements, that’s been happening since the water first became isolated, creating a long-term habitable environment.
The team then took things one step further & calculated that the quantity of sulphate was 100-1,000 times less-than would be expected within the water supply system – which lead researcher Long Li from the University of Alberta to suggest that low levels of microbes are already existing within the water & consumption the sulphite.
“The wow factor is high,” said Li during a handout .
This is only one hypothesis, however, and no microbes are detected within the water thus far . But the team is now working with microbiologists to seem for any traces of life.
Regardless of whether or not any life exists in Canada’s ancient water, the find remains hugely important for our understanding of where to seem for life both here & on other planets.
“The thing that’s special is that the sulphate is being generated by decay ,” Alex Sessions, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, who wasn’t involved within the study, told The Globe and Mail. “That’s huge.”
“Because this is often a reasonably common geological setting in early Earth also as modern Mars, we expect that as long because the right minerals & water are present, likely kilometres below the surface, they might produce the required energy source to support the microbes,” added Li in a press-release.
“I’m not saying that these microbes definitively exist, but the conditions are right to support microbial life on Mars.”
The research has been published in Nature Communications.