Newly Discovered Microfossils Could Represent Earliest Forms Of Life On Earth

Newly Discovered Microfossils Could Represent Earliest Forms Of Life On Earth

A team of researchers may have found the earliest forms of life on Earth, as these newly-discovered remains of microorganisms may be at least 3.77 billion years old.

A report from CNN details the new discovery, where scientists were able to spot small filaments and tubes in quartz layers in Quebec’s Nuvvuagittoq Supracrustal Belt. This area, the report adds, is home to some of our planet’s very first sedimentary rock formations, and researchers believe that the microorganisms had originated from bacteria that subsisted on iron.

According to University College London Earth Sciences researcher and study author Matthew Dodd, the new findings are consistent with the researchers’ theories on how the earliest forms of life originated.

“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed.”

Study lead author Dominic Papineau, also from UCL, also discussed with CNN how the microorganisms share a lot of features with younger fossils of their type and may have originated biologically, coming from “biological matter, including bones and teeth.”

“The microfossils we discovered have a range of traits that are similar to younger biological fossils. They have a twisted structure, a little bit like a corkscrew, and branching filaments. We don’t have the genetic information yet, but we believe they are non-oxidizing bacteria.”

Prior to the new discovery, researchers had previously found the earliest forms of life on Earth in microfossils spotted in Western Australia in 2013. But as CNN notes, there has been some debate regarding the legitimacy of the Australian discovery – there’s a chance that they may not actually have been fossils, but rather the result of temperature or pressure changes in rocks over a long period of time, or similarly non-biological processes.

That may not be the case with the new discovery, said Papineau. He believes that the microorganisms, which are capable of breathing and eating, may be a sign that life “developed very rapidly on Earth,” possibly about 250 million years after our planet formed. In all, he estimates that the microorganisms may be up to 4.28 billion years old, and an indicator of how complex life had become in such a short time in relation to the universe’s lifespan.

Speaking to the Washington Post, co-author John Slack of the U.S. Geological Survey said that the microfossils are similar to the ones he had discovered in younger rocks, due to their blend of carbonate, apatite, and magnetite, all of which are minerals that are typically formed organically. He had also found the presence of graphite, as well as the isotope carbon-12, which is a key ingredient in biological processes and life in itself.

“We can think of alternative explanations for each of these singular observations, but why all of these features occur together can really only be explained by one thing, which is a biological interpretation.”

Both of the above reports, however, quoted scientists who weren’t fully on board with the researchers’ claims that they had found the earliest forms of life on Earth. William Martin, who heads the Molecular Evolution Institute at Heinrich Heine University in Germany, told CNN that the new study doesn’t come with obvious proof that the microorganisms were formed by biological processes, and that “it’s not good enough” that they are merely similar to cells.

Likewise, Massachusetts Institute of Technology geobiologist Tanja Bosak said in an interview with the Washington Post that the study authors didn’t gather enough evidence to corroborate their theories. She noted the lack of images of the Quebec site where the microfossils were discovered and issues with what she sees as the wrong kind of context accompanying the findings.

In his team’s defense, Papineau told CNN that the research he and his colleagues conducted on the earliest forms of life on Earth was “very specific” in all its nine separate lines of evidence and that his team had “certainly documented evidence of early life better than anyone else.”

[Featured Image by Alexey Godzenko/Shutterstock]