Science

Scientists May Have Just Discovered the World's Oldest Fossils

Scientists May Have Just Discovered the World's Oldest Fossils

Remains of microorganisms at least 3,770 million years old have been discovered by an worldwide team led by UCL scientists, providing direct evidence of one of the oldest life forms on Earth.

They searched for fossil evidence in the Nuvvuagittuq belt because it contains some of the Earth's oldest known sedimentary rocks, which were likely formed by deep-sea hydrothermal vents that spewed out scalding water laden with minerals, including iron.

If the researchers are right, these fossils are 300 million years older than the next closest candidate for Earth's most ancient fossils, which were found in Australia in 2013 and dated to almost 3.5 billion years ago.

Iron-dwelling bacteria left behind tiny, rusty filaments and tubes, which were found encased in layers of quartz in the Nuvvuagittuq supracrustal belt near Quebec.

The fossils were likely created by bacteria that lived near hydrothermal vents and consumed iron.

If the new claims are true, they could have important implications for science, not least in the way we look for extraterrestrial life. This also shows that hydrothermal vent environments were also one of the first, if not the first, places occupied by life on Earth.

In addition, analysis is complicated because the rocks in question have often undergone adjustment. A combination of features, including the existence of graphite in the material, lead researchers to believe the source of the findings was biological - that is, very ancient life.

The NSB contains some of the oldest layers of sedimentary rock in the world.

To establish that the current finds were actually biological, and therefore made naturally by the Earth's environment billions of years ago, UCL researchers subjected the fossils to a battery of tests.

In their publication, the team argues that the filaments are similar in age to the rock formation itself - a key step for making the case that they're the earliest evidence of life to date.

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Before this discovery, the oldest confirmed life on Earth was dated to 3.4 billion years ago, leading scientists to speculate that life probably started around 3.7 billion years ago.

This discovery would be significant because it could propel the idea of life on other planets.

"If we do future sample returns from Mars and we don't find evidence of life, then Earth might have been a very special exception, and life may just have arisen on Earth", he said. "The problem is that when you go back in time it becomes harder and harder to interpret the evidence", he tells New Scientist.

Ultrafine fibers and tubes a fraction as wide as a human hair may represent the earliest signs of life on Earth.

"We don't have a good enough understanding of the range of features that can form under all sorts of conditions, whether they include biology or not", she says.

The origin of life has always been contentiously debated, often because researchers are trying to understand events that occurred billions of years ago.

What's more is that along with the right temperature and liquid water, Mars also had two other ingredients needed for life as we know it: the right elemental nutrients, namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus; and an atmosphere that protected the surface from harsh cosmic radiation and solar flares.

The researchers expressed confidence that the fossils were formed by organisms and said that no non-biological explanation for the formations was plausible.

Dodd and his colleagues believe they have now found evidence of early life, in iron-rich rocks originally formed around relatively cool vents (less than 160°C).

"The other exciting aspect of this report is that these potential microfossils are from a rock unit not previously studied for early life", he continued.


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