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Billion-year-old water discovered in Canada could give clues to early life on Earth

Life-giving chemicals have been discovered in isolated water believed to be 1.5 billion years old, raising hopes of scientists finding surviving microscopic organisms from a prehistoric age.

Image: CS Stock via Shutterstock

ANCIENT WATER RESERVES found deep inside the Earth may contain surviving microscopic organisms from a prehistoric age, potentially uncovering information about early life on this planet, scientists have said.

The water, found 2.4 kilometres below the Earth’s surface, is believed to have been isolated for at least a billion years. Although experts don’t know whether anything has been living in the water during that time, tests show the water contains high levels of hydrogen and methane – which are required to sustain life.

The primordial water was discovered within the volcanic rock of the Canadian Shield, a large area of exposed rock that forms the ancient geological core of the North American continent. No source of free-flowing water has passed through the rock in at least a billion years, according to researches reporting their find in the journal Nature.

Geochemist at the University of Manchester Chris Ballentine and his team painstakingly captured water flowing through fractures in the 2.7-billion-year-old sulphide deposits in a copper and zinc mine near Timmins, Ontario, taking care to ensure it did not come into contact with mine air. “We were expecting these fluids to be possibly tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of years of age,” he said.

The team examined the levels of certain isotopes of noble gases and determined that the water had not been exposed to the atmosphere in at least one billion years.

As well as potentially providing clues about the origins of life on Earth, the discovery may also have implications for how we search for extraterrestrial life.

“Much of the Mars crust is similar to our ancient (Canadian Shield). It’s also billions-of-years-old crystalline rock… It’s reasonable to think that same process could be going on today in the depths of Mars,” Barbara Sherwood Lollar, one of the study’s authors, told The Canadian Press.

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