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Researchers looking for evidence of life deep below the surface

Japanese scientist says it will be difficult, but is confident with what they'll find

Scientists will be heading more than two kilometres underground this week to continue researching water that is believed to be more than a billion years old.

This time, with a little help from some friends, the University of Toronto team is looking for evidence of life.

At a presentation at Northern College, researchers gave an update on the project looking at what is thought to be the world's oldest water at the Kidd Creek mine site. Northern College has been facilitating the work for the U of T, with researchers using the community college's lab when they're in town.

Scientists with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science Technology (JAMSTEC) are also in Timmins and will be part of the group heading underground tomorrow.

Oliver Warr, who is doing post-doctoral research at the University of Toronto, said the mine has provided a unique opportunity to collect the water samples “while it’s still pristine, before it possibly gets contaminated by anything else.”

He said the world-renowned team from JAMSTEC is crucial to help identify life in the extreme environment.

“It’s extremely important that they’re here because we have tried to identify life previously but because the environment is sort of quite challenging down there, we expect any life that is down there to be under such low concentrations, it’s kind of on the cutting edge of analytical capability to find them,” he said.

While there has been geochemical evidence to suggest there is life nearly 2.4 kilometres underground, he said they haven’t collected direct evidence yet.

“When we find this direct evidence then we can then understand that life can survive to these depths, and if it can survive up to two, three kilometres here at Kidd Creek, why couldn’t it survive at two, three kilometres all around the world,” he said.

“It could actually have significant ramifications for life at all levels of the planet, not just at the surface or a few metres below as people generally concentrate on.”

JAMSTEC’s Shino Suzuki is optimistic about what they'll find.

“I’ve been working on a lot of different sites in the world and then I thought that I could not find microbes in those kind of sites, but I found (them),” she said. “Timmins is pretty unique compared to the other sites so it may be very, very difficult, but through my experience I should be able to find the life.”

This is the fourth trip to Timmins for the U of T researchers.

Along from the microbial focus this visit, they are also tracking any changes in the water samples.

“We’ve noticed some changes. For example, the ages have actually been evolving, so they start off extremely old and they start to get younger and younger and we’re coming up with models to explain why and it looks like maybe there are different fraction networks of different ages which are contributing to the fluids over time, so that’s kind of the key changes,” he said.

The average age of the fluids, he said, is up to 2.2 billion years.

“That’s in several ways kind of a conservative estimate because if we sampled even earlier, could they have been even older?” he said.

The water samples are from the 7,850-foot level at the Kidd mine site.

Warr said they have gone even deeper — to 9,500-feet (2.9 kilometres) — for a new study, however.

“We found fluids which were even older the deeper we went,” he said.

Amy McKillip, the manager of applied research at Northern College, was also a geologist at Kidd.

She explained that the drill hole at the 7,850 level where the samples are from hit a pocket of water in an area that the company didn’t end up developing.

“That pocket of water has been constantly running for at least 20 years, probably going on 25 years now, so it’s a very, very unique environment. Technically since we don’t know where the source really is coming from, and we don’t know the volume, the very interesting thing is that water can stop flowing at any time,” she said.

“It’s a decent trickle because the drill hole is aimed downward so this water is actually travelling up the hole and it does come in, you can call it waves — where the water kind of spurts out at a moment and then you won’t see it for another perhaps two, three seconds and then it’ll come out again.”

With years of research put into the project, the ultimate goal is better understanding the environment.

“Science is always an evolving and progressive field and what will really help us is to just understand what these environments are really like and how they can change. Once we puncture them, so once we come into contact with them, how do they change and what implications could there be for the deep subsurface as well,” Warr said.