What does the oldest water on Earth taste like? You might be curious to know, but you probably wouldn’t want to drink it. That’s what Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a geologist from the University of Toronto, did when she discovered and tasted the ancient water in a Canadian mine. The water was estimated to be between 1.5 billion and 2.64 billion years old, and it was very salty and bitter. The water also contained microbes that survived on hydrogen and sulfate. This discovery could have implications for the search for life on other planets. In this blog post, we will explore how the water was found, how old it is, what it contains, and what it means for the search for life on other planets.
How the Water Was Found
The water was found in a mine near Timmins, Ontario, about 2.4 kilometers below the surface. The mine is one of the deepest in the world, and it is used to extract gold, copper, and zinc. The water was trapped in the cracks and fissures of the ancient rocks, which formed about 2.7 billion years ago. The water was extracted by drilling and pumping, and then analyzed by the researchers.
The researchers faced many challenges and difficulties in accessing and sampling the water. They had to wear protective gear and follow strict safety protocols to avoid accidents and injuries. They had to prevent contamination from the modern air and water that could affect the results. They had to preserve the water samples in special containers and transport them to the laboratory for further testing.
How Old the Water Is
The age of the water was determined by measuring the isotopes of gases dissolved in it, such as xenon, argon, and krypton. Isotopes are different forms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. Some isotopes are stable, while others are radioactive and decay over time. By comparing the ratios of different isotopes in the water, the researchers could estimate how long the water had been isolated from the atmosphere.
The results showed that the water was between 1.5 billion and 2.64 billion years old, making it the oldest water ever found on Earth. To put this in perspective, the water predates the formation of the continents, the evolution of multicellular life, and the rise and fall of civilizations. The water is older than the dinosaurs, the pyramids, and the human species. The water is almost as old as the Earth itself, which is about 4.5 billion years old.
The dating method, however, is not perfect and has some uncertainties and limitations. The researchers had to make some assumptions and corrections to account for the effects of temperature, pressure, and rock composition on the isotopes. The researchers also had to deal with the variability and heterogeneity of the water samples, which could have different ages and origins. The researchers plan to refine and improve the dating method in the future, and to compare it with other methods, such as radiocarbon dating and uranium-lead dating.
What the Water Contains
The water has some physical and chemical properties that make it very different from the seawater or freshwater that we are familiar with. The water is very salty and bitter, with a salinity of about 10 times that of seawater, and a pH of about 10.5, which is similar to ammonia. The water also has a high mineral content, with traces of iron, calcium, potassium, and other elements.
The reason why the water is so salty and bitter is because it has been in contact with the rocks for billions of years, and has dissolved some of the minerals and salts from them. The water also has a high concentration of hydrogen and sulfate, which are produced by the chemical reactions between the water and the rocks. The hydrogen and sulfate are important for the water’s most surprising and fascinating feature: its living microbes.
The water contains living microbes that have survived for billions of years in isolation from the surface world. The microbes are tiny, single-celled organisms that belong to different groups, such as bacteria and archaea. The microbes have adapted to the harsh and extreme conditions of the water, and have developed unique and novel ways of obtaining energy and nutrients from the hydrogen and sulfate in the water. The microbes use a process called sulfate reduction, which involves converting sulfate into sulfide and releasing electrons. The electrons are then used to reduce hydrogen into water, and to generate ATP, the molecule that powers cellular activities. The microbes also use other molecules, such as methane and carbon dioxide, as sources of carbon and energy.
What It Means for the Search for Life on Other Planets
The discovery of the ancient water and its microbes expands our understanding of the origins and diversity of life on Earth, and challenges our assumptions and expectations of what life can be and where it can exist. The discovery shows that life can persist for billions of years in extreme environments, without sunlight, oxygen, or organic matter. The discovery also shows that life can evolve and diversify in isolation, and produce new and novel forms and functions. The discovery reveals the resilience and adaptability of life, and its ability to exploit and utilize the available resources and conditions.
The discovery of the ancient water and its microbes also provides clues and inspiration for the search for life on other planets, especially those that have subsurface water, such as Mars, Europa, and Enceladus. The discovery suggests that life could have originated and survived on these planets, even if the surface conditions are hostile and inhospitable.
The discovery also suggests that life could have different and unexpected characteristics and signatures, depending on the environment and history of the planet. The discovery encourages us to look deeper and broader for life on other worlds, and to use a variety of methods and instruments to detect and analyze it.
The discovery of the ancient water and its microbes is relevant and important for the current and future missions and projects that aim to explore and detect life on other worlds. Some of these missions and projects include:
- The Mars 2020 mission, which will send a rover named Perseverance to the Jezero crater on Mars, where it will collect and store rock and soil samples that could contain evidence of past or present life.
- The Europa Clipper mission, which will send an orbiter to the Jupiter’s moon Europa, where it will study the icy surface and the ocean beneath it, and look for signs of habitability and biosignatures.
- The Enceladus Life Finder mission, which is a proposed mission that would send a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where it would fly through the plumes of water and ice that erupt from the cracks in the surface, and analyze the organic and inorganic compounds that could indicate the presence of life.
- The Breakthrough Listen project, which is a global initiative that uses radio telescopes and optical lasers to scan the sky for signals and messages from extraterrestrial civilizations.
The findings from the ancient water can inform and guide these missions and projects, and help them design and optimize their strategies and techniques for finding and studying life on other planets.
The ancient water and its microbes are not only a scientific discovery, but also a source of awe and wonder. They challenge us to rethink our place and role in the cosmos, and to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life in all its forms. As Barbara Sherwood Lollar said, “This is a window into our past, but also into our future.” The ancient water and its microbes are a remarkable reminder of the resilience and diversity of life on Earth, and a tantalizing hint of what may await us beyond.
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