We Built Cities on Rocks (Real Old)

The secret of life on Earth may be hidden away in ancient volcanic rocks. They might also contain clues on how to support life on other planets.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

The mystery of when life first formed on Earth is one scientists have been trying to solve since the dawn of time. But the answer may be as simple as examining the rocks around us.

“Rocks record the entire history of the earth – they are like a book. And if you know how to read the pages in that book, then you will understand how the earth is formed,” says Neil Banerjee, Associate Professor of Geochemistry, Economic Geology and Astrobiology at Western University.

In 2007, Banerjee led a Canadian research team that discovered fossilized trackways left by slithering microbes in 3.35 billion year old volcanic rocks from Western Australia – the oldest evidence of life on Earth. With support from the Canadian Space Agency, Prof. Banerjee’s group is now studying the ancient volcanic rocks near Timmins and Kirkland Lake, Ontario, which may help us to understand more about the conditions that might support life on other planets, like Mars.

But Banerjee’s work is not just confined to space exploration. He is also applying his research to increase mineral exploration efficiency and effectiveness that will help sustainably develop global mineral resources, fuel growing economies, and add value to Canada’s extractive industries.

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Neil Banerjee is an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University. He is credited with discoveries of evidence for some of the earliest life on Earth on four continents. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to study modern and ancient oceanic hydrothermal systems including links with metal mobility, mineral exploration, and the deep biosphere. He has pioneered research focusing on the biogeochemical effects of water-rock-microbial interactions using C and O isotopes to detect microbial biosignatures and constrain environmental conditions in ancient rocks that have undergone deformation and metamorphism. Prof. Banerjee’s research demonstrates that textural, isotopic, and geochemical biomarkers are preserved for billions of years and proposes a new geological setting for the development of early life. Such systems are instrumental for the development of life in the solar system where liquid water and other conditions were suitable. His research was highlighted twice as one of the “Top 100 Scientific Stories” of 2004 and 2006 in Discover magazine and aired on The Discovery Channel as part of a Mars series in 2007.  Prof. Banerjee has consulted and worked extensively in mineral exploration for gold, uranium, PGE, and base metals. His team is applying their research to sustainable exploration strategies through many successful partnerships with industry in Canada and globally.

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