You have to be careful what you say to people. When NASA or someone else says that the Perseverance rover will be looking for fossil evidence of ancient life, the uninformed may guffaw loudly. Or worse, they may think that scientists are looking for actual animal skeletons or something.
Has humanity been doing it all wrong? We’re busy staring off into space with our futuristic, ultra-powerful telescopes, mesmerized by ethereal nebulae and other wondrous objects, and trying to tease out the Universe’s well-kept secrets. Turns out, humble, ancient clams have something to tell us, too.
Back in November 2018, NASA announced that the Mars 2020 rover would land in the Jezero Crater. Jezero Crater is a geologically diverse area, with an alluvial fan of sediment deposited by an incoming river. That sediment may contain preserved ancient organic molecules, and the deposit is clearly visible in satellite images of the Crater.
But the crater holds something else that has scientists intrigued, something that doesn’t show up so clearly in visible light images: a “bathtub ring” of carbonates, which scientists think could hold fossils.
The title of Earth’s Earliest Life has been returned to the fossils in the Pilbara region of Australia. The Pilbara fossils had held that title since the 1980s, until researchers studying ancient rocks in Greenland found evidence of ancient life there. But subsequent research questioned the biological nature of the Greenland evidence, which put the whole issue into question again.
Now a new study of the Pilbara fossils has identified the presence of preserved organic matter in those fossils, and handed the ‘Ancient Life’ crown back to them.
When an extraterrestrial object slams into the Earth, it sends molten rock high into the atmosphere. That debris cools and re-crystallizes and falls back down to Earth. Tiny glass beads that form in this process are called microtektites, and researchers in Florida have found microtektites inside fossilized clams.
Scientists have found evidence that life existed on Earth much earlier than previously thought and they say this discovery has implications for life springing up on other planets, particularly Mars.
Fossils of microscopic bacteria were discovered in Quebec, Canada in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt, a formation which contains some of the oldest sedimentary rocks in the world. Scientists estimate the fossils are at least 3.7 billion years old, and could be as old as 4.28 billion years. This is hundreds of millions of years older than previously found specimens.
“The most exciting thing about this discovery is that we know life managed to get a grip and start on Earth at such an early time in Earth’s evolution, which gives us exciting questions as to whether we are alone in the solar system or in the universe,” said PhD student Matthew Dodd from University College London (UCL), who is the first author on a new paper about the finding in the journal Nature. “If life happened so quickly on Earth then could we expect it to be a simple process and start on other planets, or was Earth really just a special case?”
The tiny fossils are the remains of microorganisms that are smaller than the width of a human hair. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks are thought to have formed in an iron-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vent system that provided a habitat for Earth’s first life forms. These rocks are mostly composed of silica and hematite.
“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed,” Dodd said in a press release. “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.”
Prior to this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia and were dated at 3.4 billion years old, leading scientists to speculate that life probably started around 3.7 billion years ago. But the new finding suggests that life existed as early as 4.5 billion years ago, just 100 million years after Earth formed.
“The microfossils we discovered are about 300 million years older than the previously thought oldest microfossils,” said Dr. Dominic Papineau, a professor of geochemistry and astrobiology at UCL, “so they are within a few hundred million years from within the accretion of the solar system and the planet Earth and the Sun and the Moon and so on.”
Papineau said the structures in the rocks that contained the fossils were spheroids, and since they are made of hematite, they are reminiscent of the discovery in 2004 by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity of beds of rounded hematite concretions, that MER scientists called “blueberries.” These rounded concretions formed on Earth when significant volumes of groundwater flowed through permeable rock, and chemical reactions triggered minerals to precipitate and start forming a layered, spherical ball.
The concretions may bear on the search for evidence of past life on Mars because bacteria on Earth can make concretions form more quickly, according to previous research.
“The origin of this structure is not fully understood even on Earth where we find them,” Papineau said. “We don’t know really how organic matter can potentially be involved in making these structures.”
Both the MER rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, as well as the Curiosity rover have all found evidence of past water on Mars. In addition, Curiosity has identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more — the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes. If Mars really was warmer and wetter in the past, as the evidence seems to point, Mars would have been the perfect spot for living organisms.
While the finding of ancient fossils on Earth doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, in conjunction with the Curiosity rover finding of the raw ingredients for life, it is enticing to know that the environment on early Mars was likely very similar to early Earth, where life did spring up.
You can see details and hear the researchers talk about their findings in the video below:
Fossilized remains are a fascinating thing. For paleontologists, these natural relics offer a glimpse into the past and a chance to understand what kind of lifeforms lurked there. But for astronomers, fossils are a way of ascertaining precisely when it was that life first began here on our planet – and perhaps even the Solar System.
And thanks to a team of Australian scientists, the oldest fossils to date have been uncovered. These fossilized remains have been dated to 3.7 billion years of age, and were of a community of microbes that lived on the ancient seafloor. In addition to making scientists reevaluate their theories of when life emerged on Earth, they could also tell us if there was ancient life on Mars.
The fossil find was made in what is known as the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB), an area in southwest Greenland that recently became accessible due to the ice melting in the area. According to the team, these fossils – basically tiny humps in rock measuring between one and four centimeters (0.4 and 1.6 inches) tall – are stromatolites, which are layers of sediment packed together by ancient, water-based bacterial colonies.
According to the team’s research paper, which appeared recently in Nature Communications, the fossilized microbes grew in a shallow marine environment, which is indicated by the seawater-like rare-earth elements and samples of sedimentary rock that were found with them.
They are also similar to colonies of microbes that can be found today, in shallow salt-water environments ranging from Bermuda to Australia. But of course, what makes this find especially interesting is just how old it is. Basically, the stone in the ISB is dated back to the early Archean Era, which took place between 4 and 3.6 billion years ago.
Based on their isotopic signatures, the team dated the fossils to 3.7 billion years of age, which makes them 220 million years older than remains that had been previously uncovered in the Pilbara Craton in north-western Australia. At the time of their discovery, those remains were widely believed to be the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth.
As such, scientists are now reconsidering their estimates on when microbial life first emerged on planet Earth. Prior to this discovery, it was believed that Earth was a hellish environment 3.7 billion years ago. This was roughly 300 million years after the planet had finished cooling, and scientists believed it would take at least half a billion years for life to form after this point.
But with this new evidence, it now appears that life could have emerged faster than that. As Allen P. Nutman – a professor from the University of Wallongong, Australia, and the study’s lead author – said in a university press release:
“The significance of stromatolites is that not only do they provide obvious evidence of ancient life that is visible with the naked eye, but that they are complex ecosystems. This indicates that as long as 3.7 billion years ago microbial life was already diverse. This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”
When life emerged is a major factor when it comes to Earth’s chemical cycles. Essentially, Earth’s atmosphere during the Hadean was believed to be composed of heavy concentrations of CO² atmosphere, hydrogen and water vapor, which would be toxic to most life forms today. During the following Archean era, this primordial atmosphere slowly began to be converted into a breathable mix of oxygen and nitrogen, and the protective ozone layer was formed.
The emergence of microbial life played a tremendous role in this transformation, allowing for the sequestration of CO² and the creation of oxygen gas through photosynthesis. Therefore, when it comes to Earth’s evolution, the question of when life arose and began to affect the chemical cycles of the planet has always been paramount.
“This discovery turns the study of planetary habitability on its head,” said associate Professor Bennett, one of the study’s co-authors. “Rather than speculating about potential early environments, for the first time we have rocks that we know record the conditions and environments that sustained early life. Our research will provide new insights into chemical cycles and rock-water-microbe interactions on a young planet.”
The find has also inspired some to speculation that similar life structures could be found on Mars. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Martian rovers, landers and orbiters, scientists now know with a fair degree of certainty that roughly 3.7 billion years ago, Mars had a warmer, wetter environment.
“The structures and geochemistry from newly exposed outcrops in Greenland display all of the features used in younger rocks to argue for a biological origin. This discovery represents a new benchmark for the oldest preserved evidence of life on Earth. It points to a rapid emergence of life on Earth and supports the search for life in similarly ancient rocks on Mars.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that compared to Earth, Mars experiences far less movement in its crust. As such, any microbial life that existed on Mars roughly 3.7 billion years ago would likely be easier to find.
This is certainly good news for NASA, since one of the main objectives of their Mars 2020 rover is to find evidence of past microbial life. I for one am looking forward to seeing what it leaves for us to pickup in its cache of sample tubes!