Finding Life Where You’d Least Expect It

Certain microbes don't depend on the sun to survive, and understanding them changed what we know about the requirements for life.

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“Up until the time I finished high school, we were still largely thinking about life on this planet as being entirely dependent on the sun’s energy. But around the time of the late 1970s, we began to understand that there are other forms of life as well.”

Geochemist Barbara Sherwood Lollar is well-known for her work looking for life in unlikely places. Not only does her work have implications for life in outer space, but also for describing newly uncovered life forms here on Earth. Sherwood Lollar is a university professor of Earth sciences at the University of Toronto, and she’s part of a field of research that changed what we know about the requirements for life.

Most of the life forms we’re most familiar with draw energy for life from photosynthesis. Plants, and some microorganisms, draw their energy from the sun, and this energy moves up the food chain.

But deep underground and deep in the ocean, there are many microbes that don’t need the sun to survive at all. They derive their energy from chemosynthesis: the energy of chemistry as water reacts with rocks and minerals.

“Even the continents, and even deep in the crystalline rock that forms the core of the continents around the world, there’s still energy that can sustain microbial life,” says Sherwood Lollar. “We’re looking at the way in which naturally-occurring microorganisms are living in the waters deep within this planet.”

One of the fascinating things about the diversity of microbial life on Earth is that each microbe can carry out unique chemistry, simply as a part of their everyday lives. These biological processes can be exploited for environmental applications.

“I study contaminants in water,” adds Ann Sullivan Ojeda, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

“A lot of processes put contaminants in the water. But what’s great about our environment, a lot of the microbes that are already in the soils can eat these contaminants and by the time they get to the water, they are not harmful at all. We’re interested in identifying those microbes because we want to promote them so that they can transform toxic organic compounds into non-toxic compounds.”

For Sherwood Lollar, this combination of biology and geochemistry lets her use the tools she loves to answer fundamentally human questions.

“(In this discipline) there are both very practical and very applied implications to our interactions with each other and society, and to our interaction with the planet in terms of, for instance, water, resources, and climate,” says Sherwood Lollar.

“These are questions in Earth sciences that are very, very close to the nature of who we are as human beings, how we interact with our environment, and where we came from.”

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Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Companion of the Order of Canada, FRS, FRSC, is a University Professor in Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. She is a Canada Research Chair in Isotopes of the Earth and Environment, and Dr. Norman Keevil Chair. She is also Past-President of the Geochemical Society and Co-Director of the CIFAR program Earth 4D – Subsurface Science and Exploration.

In 2015 she was named a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and in 2019, a Fellow of the Geochemical Society and European Association of Geochemistry.

Sherwood Lollar has published on stable isotope geochemistry and hydrogeology, the fate of carbon-bearing fluids and gases such as CO2, CH4 and H2 in ancient fracture waters in the Earth’s crust, deep subsurface microbiology, and the remediation of surface drinking water supplies.

She has been a recipient of many academic awards including the 2012 Eni Award for Protection of the Environment, 2012 Geological Society of America Geomicrobiology and Geobiology Prize, 2014 International Helmholtz Fellowship, the 2016 NSERC John Polanyi Award, 2016 Bancroft Award for the Royal Society of Canada, 2018 Logan Medal of the Geological Association of Canada, the 2019 Herzberg Gold Medal for Canada, and the 2019 C.C. Patterson Award in environmental geochemistry.

Sherwood Lollar has served on many advisory boards including NSERC Council, the United States National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board, the Honors and Recognition Committee for the American Geophysical Union, and is currently Director of the Earth, Atmosphere and Ocean Sciences Division of the Royal Society of Canada. She was Chair of the 2018 United States National Academy of Sciences “Strategy for Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe” and is a member of the NAS Space Studies Board (2016-2020).

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