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Question Your World: How Did Life On Earth Begin?

Did life-forming matter crash down to Earth on a comet? Did the chemistry here cook just right? Was it Aliens, man?!? Listen to the latest Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

No one really knows how life on Earth started, but we have some pretty good guesses. Wether you prefer the comet theory, the earth chemistry theory, or even for the fanatical alien fans, in order for life to flourish water had to get involved. So, the study of water goes hand in hand with the study of the origins of life.

All the current theories involve studying really early data, so finding the oldest clues possible helps us fine tune our theories. Recently some scientists dug deep, about a mile and a half below ground, and struck gold… well, water, ancient water to be specific. Dr. Greg Holland’s team of English and Canadian scientists examined some water deep under Ontario which turned out to be old, really old. Crystalline structures below ground seemed to have trapped and preserved water that dates back at least 1.5 billion years, possibly older. This exact water was around long before humans, before pterosaurs flew overhead, and before multicellular life.

So, what makes this water to special other than its age? Well, once the water was studied it was revealed that this ancient water is packed with all the gasses and isotopes associated with life. Meaning, this ancient water may be the first time we find microbial life that dates back this far. The next step is to hand the water over to another group of scientists that will study it for traces of life. This is where the entire story gets way bigger. Finding signs of microbial life in this water would be a huge milestone for biological research. This find would help us understand how microbes evolve in total isolation. We generally tend to consider the evolution of life to be based around the surface conditions of a planet. In hostile areas where the surface is too hot or too cold to hold life, we tend to make that analysis and move on. This discovery however may change how we search for signs of life.

Currently we have the Curiosity rover wandering the surface of the red planet to look for signs of past life there. Other space probes have sent back data about the various planets and moons in our solar system. These are all great ways to enhance our understanding of our cosmic neighborhood, but this water sample from far below our surface brings up an interesting point. If water and perhaps even microbial life can survive below ground here with no regard to what’s happening to the surface of the planet for literally billions of years, could it do that elsewhere?

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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