Science

Oldest microfossils suggest life thrived on Earth about 4 billion years ago

Oldest microfossils suggest life thrived on Earth about 4 billion years ago

An worldwide team of scientists has discovered what they believe are the fossilised remains of microorganisms that would have clustered around a hot, seafloor vent.

He added that bands of zircon mixed into the sample, which would have likely formed later from melted bedrock, were determined to be at least 3.8 billion years old.

Locked inside white, flower-like quartz structures known to harbour fossils, they were found along what were once warm-water vents on the ocean floor, most often in deep waters.

Stromatolites formed in the sunlit surface waters of the sea, and signs of life from hydrothermal vents show that even at this early date life had colonised the sea from its surface to the depths.

Dominic Papineau, a researcher at the University College London who led the recent study that found the oldest fossil on Earth, doesn't agree with Benner's theory.

"This makes life appear to be a relatively easy process to kickstart on the planet", says Matthew Dodd, a Ph.D. student at the University College London. "This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million-year-old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by microorganisms".

Scientists have discovered microfossils believed to be older than any others found to date.

Layer-deflecting bright red concretion of haematitic chert (an iron-rich and silica-rich rock), which contains tubular and filamentous microfossils.

Before this find, the earliest accepted evidence for life were 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils from the Isua Greenstone Belt in south-west Greenland.

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Conditions on early Earth and Mars would've been like a scene from hell.

The fact that life kick-started not long after Earth formed suggests it could also emerge on watery worlds outside our Solar System at comparable stages of formation, the scientists said.

The vast majority of the water on Mars has since evaporated making the prospect of life much slimmer now than it was back then - although there may still be some life there today, Dodd said. If both findings are validated, that means life was flourishing in a variety of environments when the planet was only about one-tenth as old as it is today.

"These rocks are crosscut by lots of different hydrothermal vanes; over 4 billion years, lots of fluids have moved through these rocks", Konhauser said. Bacteria can create hematite as part of their own biological reactions, and the researchers said that this is by far the most straightforward, plausible explanation for these microscopic structures. Though the data are less definitive than the evidence for life in younger rocks, he says, this "may be as good as it gets for as old as these rocks are".

Furthermore, we found these same minerals inside granules which occur in the rocks hosting the microfossils.

"All animals when they die, when they are fossilised, they are converted into a mineral mass of apatite and carbonate", Dr Papineau said.

That is a time not long after the planet's formation and hundreds of millions of years before what is now accepted as evidence for the most ancient life yet found on Earth. Some geneticists think this microbial "Eve" would have evolved around hydrothermal vents 4 billion years ago. "The individual lines of chemical evidence are not particularly strong, but put these together with the evidence from the filaments and one comes up with a pretty convincing biological scenario", he says.

"We're on a quest to understand our origins and these kind of investigations are fascinating but we have to stay realistic about what we know and don't know", he said.

More than that, it would show that life got going around deep-sea vents where organisms have to derive their energy from geothermal processes, since there is little or no sunlight.


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