Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Energy-rich water discharges kilometres below the surface in a South African gold mine.

G. Borgonie

Scientists have discovered that many of the oldest and deepest rock formations on Earth are suffused with water that is rich in chemical energy and could house a vast underground habitat for microbes that dates back to life's first stirrings.

The find promises to open a new window on microbial evolution in the deep biosphere. It may also have significance for the exploration of Mars, where researchers speculate that an alien ecosystem may once have flourished far below the Red Planet's dry, frigid surface.

"This is not an isolated phenomenon. These old, salty waters are global," said Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a geochemist at the University of Toronto and lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Nature that documents the full extent of the hidden reservoir.

Story continues below advertisement

Working with data from more than 200 boreholes at 32 locations in North America, Africa and Asia, Dr. Sherwood Lollar and her colleagues found that water turned up virtually everywhere they looked in the ancient Precambrian formations that underlie most of Earth's continental land mass, including the Canadian Shield.

In earlier work, the team has reported the existence of pockets of ancient water sealed off from the surface that they had accessed at deep rock mines in Northern Ontario and South Africa. The new study suggests that the water is more widespread than researchers had previously recognized, and in some cases it has existed kilometres below the surface for millions or even billions of years.

The latest work shows that the water contains ample quantities of hydrogen gas derived from chemical reactions with minerals. This provides an energy source that can be exploited by bacteria and could sustain life without the need for sunlight or nutrients from the surface. Billions of years ago, it might have allowed deep-dwelling microbes to survive through times when meteorite bombardment or other environmental changes made the surface less hospitable.

An analysis of the hydrogen's abundance reveals what Dr. Sherwood Lollar calls "the energy budget for deep life" and finds that it is comparable to the amount available to microbes that live at deep-sea vents where hot magma from beneath Earth's crust is exposed to water at the seafloor.

"The exciting implication is that if there is so much more hydrogen coming out of deep rock than previously suspected, then there must be many more potentially life-sustaining pockets," said Doug Rumble, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Dr. Rumble added that the study suggests that life may not be rare at great depths but that its extent remains poorly known, in part because when deep water is extracted for analysis it is difficult to avoid its contamination by bacteria that live closer to the surface.

Dr. Sherwood Lollar said she and her team members are continuing to collect samples of water at different sites around the globe to determine what kind of microbes are living there and what that may reveal about the broader story of life on Earth.

Story continues below advertisement

"We're trying to understand the biodiversity of the subsurface – how different is one place from another," she said.

The research may also have a bearing on the search for life on other world, particularly Mars, where the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Curiosity rover has been searching for signs of past habitability.

On Tuesday, scientists reported the detection of trace amounts of methane wafting across the rover's landing site at Gale Crater – a surprise because the rover had previously not detected any methane at all. Methane is typically associated with biological activity on Earth. But on Mars, something more subtle may be going on.

"If you get water going down deep and the temperature gets high enough, it will react with rocks," said John Grotzinger, who heads the rover's science team.

Methane is one of the byproducts of such a geochemical process through a process called "serpentinization."

Dr. Grotzinger speculated that the methane could have been produced at a time when there was more water present on Mars and reacting with rocks at depth. As the planet dried out, the methane may have become locked underground, occasionally escaping in brief bursts.

Story continues below advertisement

If such a scenario proves correct, Mars may have once hosted its own zone of habitability deep below its surface, not unlike that uncovered by Dr. Sherwood Lollar and her co-authors.

"Mars is different from Earth, but it's similar enough that we can just scale things and imagine the same processes taking place," Dr. Grotzinger said.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies