The question how life began on Earth has always been a matter of profound interest to scientists. But just as important as how life emerged is the question of when it emerged. In addition to discerning how non-living elements came together to form the first living organisms (a process known as abiogenesis), scientists have also sought to determine when the first living organisms appeared on Earth.
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.
As a result, it is possible that life on Mars had enough time to form before its atmosphere was stripped away and the waters in which the microbe would have emerged dried up. As Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, the Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW and a co-author on the paper, explained:
“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!
Further Reading: Nature Communications
The energy of comets smashing into Earth billions of years ago could have generated life out of the building blocks of life that those extraterrestrial objects brought, according to new experiments published in a peer-reviewed study.
The finding comes after a team “shock compressed” an icy slush similar in composition to that found on comets, which are sometimes called “dirty snowballs” because they are a mixture of ice and rock. The compression, which researchers say is similar in intensity to comets hitting the Earth, generated amino acids – considered the basic bits of life.
“Our work shows that the basic building blocks of life can be assembled anywhere in the Solar System and perhaps beyond,” stated Zita Martins, a co-author of the paper who is with Imperial College London’s department of Earth science and engineering.
“However, the catch is that these building blocks need the right conditions in order for life to flourish. Excitingly, our study widens the scope for where these important ingredients may be formed in the Solar System and adds another piece to the puzzle of how life on our planet took root.”
Whether life arose on Earth, or was imported from other locations in the Solar System or universe, has been a hot-button topic for decades. Learning the answer not only has implications for our own planet, but also for understanding how likely it is that life exists in other Solar System planets and moons — not to mention moons or planets in other star systems.
The new experiment — which the researchers say uncovers evidence of a “cosmic factory” process for starting life — saw the team at the University of Kent and the Imperial College using a gas gun to send a projectile into an ice combination similar to what one would find a comet. After the impact, the researchers saw amino acids forming.
The work builds on research initially done by Nir Goldman, a scientist with the Lawrence Liverpool National Laboratory, who predicted the results based on simulations in the laboratory’s supercomputer. Goldman found that comets could have imported life’s building blocks (ammonia, methanol, carbon dioxide and water). Then, as they smashed into Earth, the energy produced could be enough to jump-start life.
“This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid,” stated Mark Price, a co-author and physicist from the University of Kent.
“This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”
You can read the research paper, which was published Sept. 15, on Nature Geoscience.
Are Earthlings really Martians ?
Did life arise on Mars first and then journey on rocks to our planet and populate Earth billions of years ago? Earth and Mars are compared in size as they look today. NASA’s upcoming MAVEN Mars orbiter is aimed at answering key questions related to the habitability of Mars, its ancient atmosphere and where did all the water go.
That’s the controversial theory proposed today (Aug. 29) by respected American chemist Professor Steven Benner during a presentation at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. It’s based on new evidence uncovered by his research team and is sure to spark heated debate on the origin of life question.
Benner said the new scientific evidence “supports the long-debated theory that life on Earth may have started on Mars,” in a statement. Universe Today contacted Benner for further details and enlightenment.
“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner told Universe Today. “AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars.” Benner said he has experimental data as well.
First- How did ancient Mars life, if it ever even existed, reach Earth?
On rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets that then traveled millions of miles (kilometers) across interplanetary space to Earth – melting, heating and exploding violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.
“The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock,” says Benner, of The Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida. That theory is generally known as panspermia.
To date, about 120 Martian meteorites have been discovered on Earth.
And Benner explained that one needs to distinguish between habitability and the origin of life.
“The distinction is being made between habitability (where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated).”
NASA’s new Curiosity Mars rover was expressly dispatched to search for environmental conditions favorable to life and has already discovered a habitable zone on the Red Planet’s surface rocks barely half a year after touchdown inside Gale Crater.
Furthermore, NASA’s next Mars orbiter- named MAVEN – launches later this year and seeks to determine when Mars lost its atmosphere and water- key questions in the Origin of Life debate.
Of course the proposed chemistry leading to life is exceedingly complex and life has never been created from non-life in the lab.
The key new points here are that Benner believes the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo), namely “borate and molybdate,” Benner told me.
“Life originated some 4 billion years ago ± 0.5 billon,” Benner stated.
He says that there are two paradoxes which make it difficult for scientists to understand how life could have started on Earth – involving organic tars and water.
Life as we know it is based on organic molecules, the chemistry of carbon and its compounds.
But just discovering the presence of organic compounds is not the equivalent of finding life. Nor is it sufficient for the creation of life.
And simply mixing organic compounds aimlessly in the lab and heating them leads to globs of useless tars, as every organic chemist and lab student knows.
Benner dubs that the ‘tar paradox’.
Upon arrival sometime next spring or summer, scientists will target the state of the art robot to investigate the lower sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp in search of clues to habitability and preserved organics that could shed light on the origin of life question and the presence of borates and molybdates.
It’s clear that many different catalysts were required for the origin of life. How much and their identity is a big part of Benner’s research focus.
“Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting,” says Benner in a statement. “Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.”
The second paradox relates to water. He says that there was too much water covering the early Earth’s surface, thereby causing a struggle for life to survive. Not exactly the conventional wisdom.
“Not only would this have prevented sufficient concentrations of boron forming – it’s currently only found in very dry places like Death Valley – but water is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth.”
I asked Benner to add some context on the beneficial effects of deserts and oxidized boron and molybdenum.
“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner explained to Universe Today.
“We require mineral species like borate (to capture organic species before they devolve to tar), molybdate (to arrange that material to give ribose), and deserts (to dry things out, to avoid the water problem).”
“Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars.”
“So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,” Benner elaborated.
“The assembly of RNA building blocks is thermodynamically disfavored in water. We want a desert to get rid of the water intermittently.”
I asked Benner whether his lab has run experiments in support of his hypothesis and how much borate and molybdate are required.
“Yes, we have run many lab experiments. The borate is stoichiometric [meaning roughly equivalent to organics on a molar basis]; The molybdate is catalytic,” Benner responded.
“And borate has now been found in meteorites from Mars, that was reported about three months ago.
At his talk, Benner outlined some of the chemical reactions involved.
Although some scientists have invoked water, minerals and organics brought to ancient Earth by comets as a potential pathway to the origin of life, Benner thinks differently about the role of comets.
“Not comets, because comets do not have deserts, borate and molybdate,” Benner told Universe Today.
Benner has developed a logic tree outlining his proposal that life on Earth may have started on Mars.
“It explains how you get to the conclusion that life originated on Mars. As you can see from the tree, you can escape that conclusion by diverging from the logic path.”
Finally, Benner is not one who blindly accepts controversial proposals himself.
He was an early skeptic of the claims concerning arsenic based life announced a few years back at a NASA sponsored press conference, and also of the claims of Mars life discovered in the famous Mars meteorite known as ALH 84001.
“I am afraid that what we thought were fossils in ALH 84001 are not.”
The debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as science research progresses and until definitive proof is discovered and accepted by a consensus of the science community of Earthlings – whatever our origin.
On Nov. 18, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter. Its aimed at studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time.
“MAVENS’s goal is determining the composition of the ancient Martian atmosphere and when it was lost, where did all the water go and how and when was it lost,” said Bruce Jakosky to Universe Today at a MAVEN conference at the University of Colorado- Boulder. Jakosky, of CU-Boulder, is the MAVEN Principal Investigator.
MAVEN will shed light on the habitability of Mars billions of years ago and provide insight on the origin of life questions and chemistry raised by Benner and others.
Learn more about Mars, the Origin of Life, LADEE, Cygnus, Antares, MAVEN, Orion, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations
We all know that astronomy is just plain awesome – and pretty much everything that’s interesting in the world links back to astronomy and space science in one way or another. Here I’m thinking gravity, wireless internet and of course ear thermometers. But wouldn’t it be great if we could ascribe the whole origin of life to astronomy as well? Well, apparently we can – and it’s all about cosmic rays.
Three key contenders for how it all started are:
1) Deep ocean vents, with heat, water and lots of chemistry churning away, enabled the random creation of a self-replicating crystalline compound – which, being self-replicating, rapidly came to dominate an environment of limited raw materials. From there, because it was imperfectly self-replicating, particular forms that were slightly more efficient at utilizing those limited resources came to dominate over other forms and yada, yada;
2) Something arrived on a comet or asteroid. This is the panspermia hypothesis, which just pushes the problem one step back, since life still had to start somewhere else. A bit like the whole God hypothesis really. Nonetheless, it’s a valid option; and
3) The Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that if you zap a simple mix of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen with an electric spark, roughly equivalent to a lightning bolt in the early Earth’s prebiotic atmosphere, you convert about 15% of the carbon present in that inorganic atmosphere into organic compounds, notably 22 amino acid types. From this base, it’s assumed that a self-replicating molecule came to be and from there… well, see point 1).
Additional support for the Miller-Urey option comes from the analysis of ‘old’ genes, being genes which are common to a wide diversity of different species and are hence likely to have been passed down from a common early ancestor. It’s found that these old genes preferentially code for amino acids that can be produced in the Miller-Urey experiment, being the only amino acids that would have been available to early Earth organisms. Only later did a much larger set of amino acids become available when subsequent generations of organisms began to learn how to synthesize them.
Nonetheless, Elykin and Wolfendale argue that the available spark energy generated in a average lightning storm would not have been sufficient to generate the reactions of the Miller-Urey experiment and that an extra factor is needed to somehow intensify the lightning in early Earth’s atmosphere. This is where cosmic rays come in.
While many cosmic rays are generated by solar activity and most don’t penetrate far into the atmosphere, high energy cosmic ray particles, which generally originate from outside the solar system, can create electron air showers. These arise from a cosmic ray particle colliding with an atmospheric particle producing a cascade of charged pions, which decay into muons and then electrons – resulting in a dense collection of electrons showering down to two kilometers or less above the Earth’s surface.
Such a dense electron air shower could initiate, enhance and sustain a high energy lightning storm and the researchers propose that, perhaps when the early solar system was drifting past some primeval supernova event over four billion years ago, this was what started it all.