Traces of life have been present in the water for more than 2 billion years.
Water in an abandoned gold mine.
Image credit: Mishainik/shutterstock.com
Geologists investigating a Canadian mine made a remarkable finding in 2016. They discovered flowing water between 1.5 billion and 2.64 billion years old at a depth of around 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). It was the oldest water ever discovered on Earth, having been secluded for so long.
“When people think about this water, they assume it must be some tiny amount of water trapped within the rock,” Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar, who led the team, told BBC News. “But in fact, it’s bubbling right up at you. These things are flowing at rates of liters per minute – the volume of the water is much larger than anyone anticipated.”
The crew came across indications that suggested there had once been life in the water.
“By looking at the sulfate in the water, we could see a fingerprint indicative of the presence of life. And we were able to indicate that the signal we see in the fluids has to have been produced by microbiology – and most importantly, has to have been produced over a very long time. The microbes that produced this signature couldn’t have done it overnight,” Sherwood Lollar said. “This has to indicate that organisms have been present in these fluids on a geological timescale.”
The microorganisms used radiation-produced substrates to survive in the absence of light.
“The sulfate in this ancient water is not modern sulfate from surface water flowing down. We’ve found that the sulfate, like the hydrogen, is actually produced in place by reaction between the water and rock,” Long Li, assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said in a press release. “This means that the reaction will occur naturally and can persist for as long as the water and rock are in contact, potentially billions of years.”
Everyone on the Internet constantly wants to know what the banned drink tastes like, even though the discovery had ramifications for finding life elsewhere on Earth and out there in the Solar System. Amazingly, we have a response for it.
“If you’re a geologist who works with rocks, you’ve probably licked a lot of rocks,” Sherwood Lollar told CNN. She tasted the water off her finger even though it wasn’t a rock. She searched for a salty flavor because older water tends to be more salty. Much to her delight, the water was “very salty and bitter” and “much saltier than seawater.” This isn’t entirely unexpected, given that it has aged for over 2 billion years.
The study was released in Nature in 2016.
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