A group of Witsies, collaborating with international scientists, have made groundbreaking discoveries that could change the way we view the origins of life.

A group of Wits University students has uncovered life-supporting substances such as various kinds of gas, water and an ecosystem of microbes in a mine in Moab Khotsong in North West.

The findings of the students, from the school of geophysics, and a team of international scientists were announced at the end of May this year.

The international project, dubbed Drilling into Seismogenic Zones, is backed by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP), a collaborative project by several Japanese researchers who have been working at Wits mining sites to study the connection between earthquakes and mining.

The findings of the team could shed light on the origins of life, which are not traditionally believed to be located deep inside a mine.

Analyses and experiments are still being conducted in the mine, which is 3km deep, but so far the students and scientists have found that rocks with cracks in them release certain minerals, which proves that life could have existed in the space before.

“This is another type of research that scientists are interested in because the existence of microbial communities in such conditions may give clues about the possibility for life to exist on other planets such as Mars, so it is a big project we are collaborating on,” said Wits geophysicist, Professor Musa Manzi, a member of the research team.

Wits PhD geology student Zamaswazi Nkosi, one of the members of the team, told Wits Vuvuzela that even though the project was conducted at a difficult site, it gave her a number of opportunities.

“In as much as it is challenging, it’s a great learning experience that has offered me opportunities that landed me in Japan and working with top scientists across the globe, which really helped me grow as a researcher,” she said.

Errol Cason, another member of the team, from the University of Free State, said the project is noteworthy because of the research that has been done in the context of high salinity and temperature, which appears to impose a habitability constraint on subsurface terrestrial life that has not been fully understood but which it is hoped will be made more clear.

“Moab Khotsong is the only location where subsurface salts have been encountered in the Witwatersrand Basin. The composition of these salts suggests they have likely been isolated from the surface.

“Furthermore, the discovery of living biomass from such hypersaline, deep and presumably old water extends the abiotic fringe and could provide clues to the limits of habitable subsurface environments on Mars,” said Cason.

FEATURED IMAGE: Left to right, Professor Zeblon Zenzele Vilakazi, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, and geosciences professor Musa Manzi. Photo: Provided.