Secrets of life on Earth, Mars bubbling in 2.7 billion-year-old water

Sparkling water samples from Canadian Shield like “trapped time capsules”

May 15, 2013 | Kim Luke | University of Toronto

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

A team of Canadian and UK researchers has discovered what may be some of the oldest pockets of water on the planet – and they may contain life.

May 16, 2013 |  Office of Public Relations at McMaster University

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

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.

16 May 2013 | Aeron Haworth | The University of Manchester | Media Relations

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

16 May 2013 | Lancaster University News

University Professor Barabara Sherwood-Lollar's research gathered water made from elements trapped since early in the Earth's history (photo by Brian Summers)

University Professor Barabara Sherwood-Lollar’s research gathered water made from elements trapped since early in the Earth’s history (photo by Brian Summers)

university-of-toronto-logo

Secrets of life on Earth, Mars bubbling in 2.7 billion-year-old water

Sparkling water samples from Canadian Shield like “trapped time capsules”

May 15, 2013Kim LukeUniversity of 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.

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. Their discovery will be published in the May 16 issue of Nature.

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.

Image  of U of T  postdoctoral researcher K. Voglesanger measuring geochemistry of the deep fluids by K. Voglesanger

Image of U of T postdoctoral researcher K. Voglesanger measuring geochemistry of the deep fluids by K. Voglesanger

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.

Sherwood Lollar says 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.

Kim Luke writes for the Faculty of Arts & Science.

( emphasis appeared on text, mine )

###

TK Recommends

explore provided related content


###

 

McMasterUni

PHOTO BY J. TELLING    Gas that bubbles out of the floor in a deep mine has a chemical composition that can provide the food source for microbes living in deep, ancient fluids underground.

PHOTO BY J. TELLING – Gas that bubbles out of the floor in a deep mine has a chemical composition that can provide the food source for microbes living in deep, ancient fluids underground.


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

A team of Canadian and UK researchers has discovered what may be some of the oldest pockets of water on the planet – and they may contain life.

May 16, 2013 |  Office of Public Relations at McMaster University

The team, which included McMaster’s Greg Slater, analyzed water pouring out of boreholes in a mine nearly 2.5 km below the ground in Timmins, located in northern Ontario.

Their findings, published May 15 in the journal Nature, could force us to rethink which parts of Earth are fit for life.

The researchers used isotopes of helium, neon, argon and xenon to demonstrate that the water was isolated deep beneath the Earth for an average of 1.5 billion years and possibly up to 2.6 billion years, making it some of the oldest water ever observed.

The water is also rich in dissolved gasses like hydrogen and methane, which could provide energy for microbes that may not have been exposed to the sun for billions of years.

For Slater, an associate professor in geography and Earth sciences, the work is just one aspect of a much bigger project.

The overarching focus of my interest is to look at how microbial life exists in the deep subsurface of the Earth,” he says. “I try to detect these microbes and try to understand how they’re making a living, how they eat, how they process energy and so on.”

While he leaves analysis of the gases found in the water up to his collaborators at the University of Manchester, Lancaster University and the University of Toronto, Slater was in Timmins to collect samples both for this study and for other microbiology research.

Imagine there is a series of isolated pockets of water, all of different ages and with different characteristics,” he says. “I try to find out if there are microbes living in some and not others, and then try to understand why they can live in some environments and not others.

The work also shines a light on what life on other planets might look like.

It tells us things about the mechanisms of life that we can’t easily see on the surface of the Earth,” he says. “Photosynthesis and aerobic respiration are great ways to live, so that’s what we all do. But when you dig deeper you find pathways of life that include energy created through water-rock interactions or other means not found on Earth’s surface.

If the water does contain microbes, it opens up the possibility that life in the subsurface of planets like Mars may also exist and may use similar strategies.

( emphasis appeared on text, mine )

###

TK Recommends

###

u1Ke_jow4LD4EIwI7sxUvSk7OxpgFlfYDAovjFr4vJY

Primordial soup or sparkling water

manchester

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

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.

16 May 2013Aeron HaworthMedia Relations

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 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 boreholes from a mine 2.4 kilometres 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.

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 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 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 characterise old, deep groundwater that may be a safe place to inject carbon dioxide.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, sais: “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.

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

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 univerities. Credit: L. Li (2012)

( emphasis appeared on text, mine )

###

TK Recommends

###

lancasterUni

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

16 May 2013 | Lancaster University News

###

ResearchBlogging.org
Kim Luke, University of Toronto, Office of Public Relations, McMaster University, Aeron Haworth, The University of Manchester, & Lancaster University, News (2013).
Water’s secrets
Tracing Knowledge

IMPORTANT NOTICE

IMPORTANT NOTICE

Share

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s