• Barbara Sherwood Lollar is a geologist at the University of Toronto

    Barbara Sherwood Lollar is a geologist at the University of Toronto. (Photo: Brian Summers)

A lot of great things have come out of Timmins, Ont. Gold. Shania Twain. The hockey-playing Mahovlich brothers. But there’s never been anything quite like what Barbara Sherwood Lollar found in August 2007.

The University of Toronto geologist and her team were 2.4 kilometres underground in a local mine, looking for water that had become trapped in the Earth’s crust long ago. They found it, gushing out of boreholes and fractures in the rock. But this water wasn’t thousands or even millions of years old, as they had expected. It was 1.1 to 2.64 billion years old, as lab results published in the scientific journal Nature in May revealed, making it the oldest free-flowing water ever identified.

The water is still being tested to see if it contains microbial life. If it does, it may help scientists better understand how long life could survive in isolation on Earth — and on other planets. “Most people don’t realize major parts of the Martian crust are the same age as Earth,” says Sherwood Lollar, adding that if there is any past life on Mars, it’s likely in the subsurface. “If we’ve been able to show that deep in the Precambrian rock of this planet, there are bubbling up energy-rich waters that can support life, there’s every reason to believe that phenomenon is taking place on Mars.”