SOUDAN, Minn. (WCCO) — Scientists in Minnesota have discovered a place like nowhere else on earth right here in Minnesota. It’s in the water found at the bottom of the Soudan Mine on the Iron Range. Where the water comes from is still a mystery, but it could possibly be from an ancient sea — a sea that existed before there was life on Earth.

Deep underground, the water dripping from the walls of an old mine is like nothing else on Earth. It got scientists thinking, and then studying. And what they’ve seen so far leads them to believe this is a major discovery.

“It’s also a journey back in time,” said Robert Elde, Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences. “A journey back maybe as old as the rock itself found deep in that mine 2.7 billion years old.”

That’s right, 2.7 billion years ago; geologists say the rock of the Iron Range first emerged. It makes northern Minnesota the oldest part of the entire North American continent and perhaps the oldest on Earth.

“They know that the rock is very ancient,” said Elde. “They know that it arose out of an ancient brine sea. They’ve been suspecting that the water that’s being pressured out from even deeper is ancient water.”

A rickety old elevator in northern Minnesota goes deep into the Earth, landing 1/2-mile down on the 27th level of the old Soudan Mine. And a team of scientists wade through 1/2-foot of rusty water and absolute darkness. They’re here to gather a few samples of this “ancient water.”

“So there’s some geological mysteries and then there’s some biological mysteries as well,” said Jeff Gralnick, a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota.

He’s here to study the smallest forms of life — microbes that are invisible to the naked eye — and exist without oxygen.

“Ah, this is awesome,” said Gralnick. “It’s life in an extreme environment. It’s potentially a window into ancient history, which is pretty cool. And there are microbes here doing things that people haven’t really studied before.”

The ancient water is seeping from holes that were drilled long ago by miners. And it is very salty. In fact, some of the water bubbling out has three times the amount of salt as ocean water.

These exploratory bores once offered samples of rock to help find the richest areas to mine. Now they provide a drop of hope for the future.

“Our preliminary results suggest that they’re making a lot of biologically active compounds,” said Christine Salomon, who works in a lab at the University of Minnesota that designs new drugs.

“Ideally we’d like to find new compounds that could inhibit bacteria, particularly those that are resistant,” said Salomon. “And a cure for cancer maybe.”

When geologist Calvin Alexander saw a formation under a stream of water in the mine, it reminded him of photos he’d seen.

“This may very well be a model or an analog of the conditions we see on Mars,” said Alexander.

So the research underway is important for many reasons.  It may just help us to understand our place in the universe.

“Because if there is life on other planets and other solar systems, it’s not likely to be life that resembles us,” said Elde. “It’s much more likely to be life that resembles these most primitive forms of life on this planet.”

The only other place they’ve discovered something similar to this ancient water is in very, very deep gorges in the ocean floor. That water is more difficult to get to and study when you consider in Minnesota, it’s just a short elevator ride.

Joan Gilbertson, Producer
Contact Joan

Comments (33)
  1. Ojay Sanders says:

    There are all sorts of strange and cool things in and around Soudan. A giant gorge, The Biggest agate you ever seen and more!

  2. PJ says:

    Who would have thought you could find essentially sea water at the bottom of a Soudan mine! What an exciting discovery! I’m very interested in this topic and I hope WCCO will follow up on it! This story shows how interesting and fascinating out Iron Range is!

  3. MNSUX says:

    Really, a cure for cancer? Getting a bit ahead of ourselves aren’t we? And by the way, all water is ancient. The water you brushed your tooth with this morning is the same water dinosaurs pee’d in. Get over yourselves minnesotians..

    1. nfs says:

      pretty negative, aren’t you?

    2. Brandy says:

      Actually, not all water is ancient. I suggest you study meteorology and condensation. I will say that instead of using the word “ancient”, the scientist should have said prehistoric, as we are looking at an unhampered water supply (until recently) that has most likely been in existence long before hominids. 2.7 billion years ago is roughly the same time that the atmosphere was forming, oxygen was just starting to build; this would make sense as to why they are finding lifeforms that can survive without oxygen. These prehistoric species have not evolved and have retained most likely their original or very close to their original form. The salt content of this water is supposed to be incredibly high, higher than any other location on earth with exception to the ocean’s deepest depths that have been reached my modern technology. Also, it was not assumed that a cure for cancer would come from this discovery and that is not what was said. Finding a location such as this anywhere would lead anyone to think of the great possibilities presented to us.

  4. trl says:

    YO MNSUX……….YOUR AN IMBECILE AND A MORON…the guy said “maybe”find a cure for cancer… you know what “maybe” means?… exemplify only the idiots that every society must tolerate…..please dont have any children.

    1. MNSUX says:

      That would be “…You’re an imbecile and a moron…”. You must be the product of the sub-par minnesota schools.

      1. me says:

        Somewhat hypocritical since you spelled sucks incorrectly.

  5. Dyllon Gallagher says:

    hell ya use the water to find new medical uses it could just save millions of lives.

    1. MNSUX says:

      Trying to keep it family friendly.

      1. Dennis says:

        You’re a fricken idiot….Did your parents have any children that lived????

  6. Dyllon Gallagher says:

    MNSUX you are an ass u know that u are just trying to look cool but dude grow up. u arent cool and u are just an imbicle

  7. Silly liberals says:

    Don’t these liberals have anything else to do! We should just fill that hole in and get serious reducing goverment and lowering taxes.

    1. Ignorance must be bliss says:

      Silly liberals
      That is a stupid post. Why are republicans so stupid that they think there are only republicans and liberals, nothing else? What did this have to do with politics? If you do not want to talk about the story do not post on it. There is a place to discuss politics, I suggest you take your narrow mind there and let the rest of us enjoy our story about science.

      1. sb says:

        Thank you well said!

    2. Pickwick says:

      Yeah, sure. And you’re going to pay for filling in the hole out of your own pocket, right? Wadda maroon!

  8. MNSUX says:

    Yah, and maybe hotdish can cure cancer too. Holy buckets, don’t cha know.

  9. mark from MNtaxwaste says:

    Great story WCCO, please do a follow up on what they find

    1. lib says:

      Unbelievable, sea water? we are a ways from the ocean. we may not be able to count on wcco for follow up pay attention to the names in the article and google, they may keep updates on a site somewhere.

      1. J. Gralnick says:

        We have an outreach component to our project that will include developing an interactive display in the visitor’s center at the mine. Google ‘Soudan Underground Mine State Park’ to find the DNR’s website – there are great tours you can take (they don’t talk about our research just yet – but they will in the next year or two!). You can find some more pictures at my website too – just search for ‘Gralnick Lab’ and you’ll find it!

        Thanks for the interest!

        1. Charlie Peliska says:

          It’s so great to see fantastic new research coming out of the old mine – first high energy physics, now biology and geology, who knows what next! It’s a perfect example of why we need to conserve unique areas for future research! Keep up the research!

  10. Eye Roller says:

    Usually when someone bashes something for really no apparent reason it’s a sign of jealousy and/or the person is making up for something lacking in their life. It’s OK, MNSUX we understand. I don’t believe that you’ve ever heard the term “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”.

    1. MNSUX says:

      Or as they say in the godforsaken frozen wasteland that is minnesota, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, wait til they’re not around to trash them”

      1. Murdocknotes says:

        MNSUX – Leave Minnesota. Find someone or something else to bash. Like your parents for the bad genes you so evidently possess.

      2. Dennis says:

        Hey MNSUX ….When was the last time your heard from your brain????

      3. barry says:

        MNSux is from wisconsin

  11. Ruggy says:

    Shhh! My fellow Minnesotans, please don’t undermine our unofficial propaganda campaign which has created the myth that our state is a frozen and inhospitable non-destination just out of reach of Chicago. We may have 10,000 lakes, but there would soon be 20,000 people on each of them if word of this ever leaked out to the rest of the nation. So when you’re among company who wants to bash Minnesota, just laugh along with them, and keep our secret. If they ask why you live here, just tell them in the exaggerated Fargo movie dialect that it’s because you’re crazy and be sure to cross your eyes. Keep the stunningly beautiful reality of our state on a need-to-know basis, if you want to protect it!

    1. Dennis says:

      LOL…. Way to go Ruggy….I agree with you 100%…. 😎

  12. Guywhokickedyou says:

    Hows about everybody just stop commenting on the dudes posts. He’s obviously just trolling just to get a reaction out of dumb suckers like yourselves. Ignore and all will be well in your worlds. Trust me. The dude abides.

  13. Dan says:

    I’ve been down in the Mine and it is very cool.