Scientists Discover Evidence of Oldest Life on Earth

The iron-rich and silica-rich rock where the fossils were found

For instance, the 3.5-billion-year-old rocks identified in Australia, known as the Apex Chert, were initially touted as tiny microfossils, but a subsequent analysis found that the chemical remains were tied to nonbiological processes from hydrothermal vents, said Kurt Konhauser, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Alberta who was not involved in the new study. They were found in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt in Quebec, Canada in quartz layers. New research in the journal Nature by an worldwide team of scientists lead by Dominic Papineau and Matthew Dodd from University College London explores an exceedingly ancient hydrothermal vent community that possibly holds the remains of the earliest habitable environment on Earth.

"All these independent lines of evidence tell us that these microfossils are indeed biological in origin", Dodd says.

This microscope image shows tiny tubes in rock found in Quebec, Canada.

To test this theory, my colleagues and I studied an ancient group of rocks in north-east Canada called the Nuvvuagittuq belt, dated to be between 4,280m and 3,770m years old.

The worldwide team used a laser imaging system, ion beams, and electron miscroscopes to look at the structures in the rock - not just their shape but the minerals they were made of.

"The authors offer a convincing set of observations that could signify life", says Kurt Konhauser, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study. Those found in 3.3 billion year-old rocks were much smaller - not surprising given that they would have grown very slowly in such an environment.

The research could yield interesting new insights regarding the origins of life on Earth, and the potential for life to develop on other planets."We might want to look for this kind of fossils on other ancient planetary surfaces, such as the surface of Mars".


If the researchers' claims are proven to be true, however, this discovery will have massive implications, proving that life was present on Earth at least 300 million years earlier than previously thought. They have a twisted structure, a little bit like a corkscrew, and branching filaments. The fossils were created via the introduction of iron into the dead microbes' bodies, and they were ultimately preserved along with the vents themselves. "We know that life managed to get a foothold and evolve rapidly on Earth". Rocks at the site have been aged at 4.28 billion years old - around the time (4.6 billion years ago) when the Earth is said to have formed.

Haematite tubes from the NSB hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence of life on Earth.

Researchers analyzed the newly discovered piece quartz to determine whether the mineralized tube structures could have been formed by temperature or pressure changes. If the paper is right, these Canadian fossils could be 3.77 billion years old, or even as old as - hold onto your hat, in case you're wearing one - 4.28 billion years.

And if life did form just hundreds of millions of years after Earth, which is 4.6 billion years old, that could shape the debate about whether life on Earth is unique. And, he says, the fossils contain the chemistry you'd expect to find around living organisms, namely, lots of carbon and phosphorus.

The discovery was reported in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The researchers said the discovery demonstrates that life developed on Earth at a time when the surfaces of both Earth and Mars boasted liquid water.

All this, the researchers say, is consistent with iron-oxidizing bacteria that we find at hydrothermal vents today, as well as slightly less ancient fossil examples.

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