‘We Look Inwards To See If Something’s Out There’

Looking deep in the Earth, at the extremes where microorganisms can thrive, informs our search for life on other planets and moons.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Geochemist Barbara Sherwood Lollar studies everything about water under the surface of our planet. When it comes to near-subsurface water, that might include issues of purity and quality of our drinking water. But on the other end of the spectrum, she looks for evidence of life kilometers underground in hopes of finding life on other planets and moons.

“We look at systems way, way deep into the Earth, even two and three kilometers deep, where we’re looking at the way in which other forms of life, and in particular naturally occurring microorganisms, are living in the waters deep within this planet,” says Sherwood Lollar, university professor of Earth sciences at the University of Toronto.

These microorganisms thrive in some of the harshest environments on the planet. They tell us about the incredible extremes where life can still be found. In our quest to find life elsewhere in the solar system, these insights serve as a launching point for exploration.

“We look inwards to understand if something is out there,” adds Sherwood Lollar. “The field of astrobiology right now is in an extraordinary phase.”

There is unprecedented understanding of our solar system and our universe. We have a wealth of information from the Rover explorations of Mars. We are continually finding and characterizing more exoplanets circling other suns, some of which have evidence of water, a requirement for life.

With more planet and moons to study, the opportunity to find life is expanding. Understanding the physical and chemical signatures that indicate life, past or present, improves our chances of recognizing it.

“We are at a real sweet spot in terms of this question of space exploration, and a very, very exciting time to be living in.”

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

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).

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.