Billion Year-Old Water Found On Earth May Hold Key To Finding Life On Mars
May 16, 2013

Billion-Year-Old Water Found On Earth May Hold Key To Finding Life On Mars

John P. Millis, Ph.D. for — Your Universe Online

How did life begin? This question has been the focus of intense research for centuries, and while we have made significant strides, the answer still eludes us.

Understanding how the first proteins, amino acids, and other organic compounds came together to form the first living cells is vital in our search for finding potential life on other worlds. And we have long thought that the key to life, here on Earth anyway, is the presence of liquid water.

Now, researchers from the universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Toronto and McMaster analyzed pockets of water deep under the Earth´s surface that have been isolated for billions of years.

Collecting water that was flowing out of boreholes in a mine, some 2.4 kilometers below the Earth´s surface in Ontario, Canada, researchers found abundant chemicals known to support life. The water was teaming with dissolved gases like hydrogen, methane and various isotopes of noble gases such as helium, neon, argon and xenon.

The natural radioactive decay of some of these isotopes could have provided much needed energy for the proliferation of life. Ancient water, such as this, was once thought uninhabitable for life simply because the chemical make up and lack of solar energy would have been roadblocks to creation.

Chris Ballentine of the University of Manchester, co-author of the study, and project director, noted, “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.”

The next step for Ballentine and his team is to see if any life is still present within the waterways. “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,” according to Greg Holland of Lancaster University, and lead author of the study.

In other words, these results may challenge the way in which we think about life evolving on other planets. But they are also quick to point out that the implications from this word stretch far beyond simply hoping for life on other worlds.

Ballentine shares, “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.”