Research highlights | Jul 5, 2016 | By Marcus Threndyle, Education and Outreach Assistant

Diving Deep into the Earth’s History at IISD Experimental Lakes Area

Did you think IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) was only 48 years old?

IISD-ELA continued its expansion into exciting new scientific frontiers last week when we welcomed researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Professor Josh Neufeld’s PhD student Jackson Tsuji, along with Assistant Professor Jason Venkiteswaran, Professor Sherry Schiff and a team of others, are diving deep into the Earth’s history by sampling IISD-ELA lakes, searching for conditions and microbes mimicking those that existed in Earth’s anoxic (oxygen-free) oceans during the Archaean Eon, between 3.8 billion and 2.5 billion years ago.

Most of the Boreal Shield lakes at IISD-ELA have waters that separate into distinct temperature layers during the summer. The bottom water layer, called the hypolimnion, can naturally become oxygen-free and develop special chemical characteristics. Some of these characteristics, like being rich in iron while maintaining low sulphur levels, match those predicted for oceans during the Archaean Eon.

You could, therefore, almost see these lakes as time machines, that can be used to explore the microbial activity that may have occurred in the Earth’s oceans in the past. These special chemical conditions are also found in millions of other lakes in northern Canada, in Russia and in Scandinavian countries, meaning this research approach could potentially be applied around the world.

Tsuji and the team were led to their discovery after examining isotope and DNA data from two IISD-ELA lakes: Lake 227 and Lake 442. The team noticed unusual activity in the hypolimnia of these lakes that they later attributed to the activity of unique bacteria called photoferrotrophs. These bacteria live in oxygen-free environments and make a living by oxidizing iron using light energy. Similar photoferrotrophs are thought to have been active in the Archaean oceans, helping to build rock structures called banded iron formations that are still visible today. Tsuji and the team are now examining the chemical characteristics and bacterial communities of additional IISD-ELA lakes to expand upon their initial findings.

The potential for these findings is immediately apparent, and very exciting. Studying these special environments in the bottoms of the lakes will allow researchers to answer questions about the ancient Earth in new ways. Until now, only a handful of lakes worldwide have been identified that can be used to study Archaean ocean life, limiting the types of experiments that can be done to learn about the Earth’s past.

If Tsuji and the team can show that boreal lake hypolimnia are strong proxies for conditions in Archaean oceans, it will open a new eon for research at IISD-ELA—literally. Their results will potentially be seminal, revealing a new natural laboratory for the study of life’s early development and expanding the horizons of IISD-ELA’s scientific research possibilities.

Lake science boat Canada

Jackson Tsuji loads water samples and equipment onto a boat at Lake 468. Tsuji and the team are gathering chemical and microbiological data from several IISD-ELA lakes to explore how the lakes can be used to learn about the Earth’s ancient past. Photo credit: Jason Venkiteswaran