Fossil microbes discovered in Australia could be Earth's oldest known life form
Sunday 21 August 2011
The fossilised remains of microbes that lived beside the sea in the earliest chapter of life on Earth have been discovered in a slab of rock in Western Australia.
Researchers found the tiny fossils in rock formations that date to 3.4bn years ago, making them strong candidates to be the oldest microbes found. Some clung to grains of sand that had gathered on one of the first known stretches of beach.
The findings paint a vivid picture of life arising when the first landmasses began to emerge in fragmentary fashion from the oceans. At the time, volcanic eruptions spewed gas and lava, while a blanket of thick cloud greyed the skies. The moon – much closer then than it is today – pulled the oceans into vast tidal surges. There was no breathable oxygen.
"To us it would have seemed like a hellish place to live," said Prof Martin Brasier at Oxford University, who co-authored a report on the fossils in the journal Nature Geoscience. "To early life, this was paradise. A true Eden."
Brasier worked with a team led by Dr David Wacey at the University of Western Australia, who found the fossils in the region's Strelley Pool formation, one of the oldest outcrops of sedimentary rock on Earth.
High-magnification images showed the fossils were spherical, oval and tubular, much like modern microbes, and were of a similar size, between 0.01mm and 0.02mm across.
Researchers who study the origin of life on Earth, typically draw on several strands of evidence to support their findings. Apart from the size and shape of the fossilised microbes, Wacey points to carbon and nitrogen in the cell walls, a hallmark of all living things today.
Further evidence comes from the cells forming chains and clusters, and clinging to sand grains in the sediment. Inside some fossils were exquisitely fine structures that appear as microbes grow and divide.
Some of the microbes are likely to have fed off pyrite, a sulphur-rich iron compound, and produced sulphate as a waste product. Others used this sulphate and produced hydrogen sulphide, the gas that smells like rotten eggs.
"What we can say is that early life was very simple, just single cells and small chains, some perhaps housed in protective tubes," Wacey told the Guardian. "The new evidence from our research points to earliest life being sulphur-based, living off and metabolising compounds containing sulphur rather than oxygen for energy and growth," Wacey said.
Last year, Emmanuelle Javaux at the University of Liege in Belgium, reported microbial fossils in 3.2bn-year-old sediments in South Africa. "That means our discovery pushes back the microbial fossil record by around 200m years," Wacey said.
Some researchers have claimed older microbial fossils, up to 3.5bn years old, but Wacey said these were controversial. "Some are very poorly preserved and could just as easily be non-biological artefacts. Others appear in rocks that are of dubious age, and others lack a sensible metabolism," he said.
Unravelling the nature of the world's oldest organisms will help scientists write the first chapter of life on Earth, but it will also aid the search for life elsewhere. Future missions to Mars, for example, might focus on ancient beaches and river sands that may have turned to rock with traces of primitive life within them.
"It is vital to know what the most simple life on our planet looked like, and how to unambiguously identify it, if we are to have any chance of identifying life elsewhere,"