Billion-Year-Old Water Found in Canada Holds Clues About Ancient Life

First Posted: May 16, 2013 05:42 AM EDT

According to a finding published in the journal Nature, a U.K.-Canadian team of scientists has discovered billion-year-old water deep underground from a mine that is 2.4 kilometers beneath Ontario. This water could be the oldest on the planet, and leads to the possibility of similar life being discovered on Mars.

These ancient pockets of water were analyzed by researchers from the Universities of Toronto, Lancaster, Manchester and McMaster. The researchers believe that this isolated deep underground water may contain chemicals that are known to support life.

Believed to be one of the oldest water samples ever found, the rocks that hold this water are similar to those found on Mars, raising hopes that similar life-sustaining water could be discovered in the depths of Martian polar ice caps.

On analyzing the water, the researchers have found that it is rich in dissolved gases such as hydrogen, methane and other forms of noble gases like argon, xenon, helium and neon. The researchers state that the hydrogen content in the water is as much as that found around hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean.

These gases provide sufficient energy to the microbes that have not been exposed to the sun for billions of years. The crystalline rocks that surround the water are said to be some 2.7 billion years old, but till date no one believed that the water would be that old. However, with the aid of certain techniques, they found that the water is at least 1.5 billion years old.

"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," Chris Ballentine, of the University of Manchester, co-author of the study and project director, says in a press statement.  

Prior to this, the record of oldest water discovered was trapped in bubbles in rock, but it was not capable of supporting life. The characteristics of this ancient water is similar to younger water flowing from a mine 2.8 kilometers below ground in South Africa, which previously supported microbes.

"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," said Dr. Greg Holland of Lancaster University, lead author of the study.

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