Scientists claim to have found oldest fossils ever discovered

Janie Parker
March 3, 2017

Scientists have found traces of bacteria living more than 3.7 billion years ago, an age that would make them - if confirmed - the oldest-known fossils and bolster the idea that life got off to a running start on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere.

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.

The fossils found, in a study led by University College London, are tiny filaments and tubes formed by bacteria that lived on iron. It was therefore a priority for the UCL-led team to determine whether the remains from Canada had biological origins. Dodd examined hair-thin slices of rock from this formation and found intriguing features: tiny tubes composed of an iron oxide called hematite, as well as filaments of hematite that branch out and sometimes terminate into large knobs.

The location is important as Nuvvuagittuq is home to some of the oldest sedimentary rocks ever known, likely part of an iron-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vent system billions of years ago, which helped to create life on the planet.

However, some experts believe they may be non-biological features in the rocks. The finding, the academics behind the work say, could help to indicate how life on Earth evolved.

Before this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia.

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.

In a remote region of northern Quebec, scientists have found the remains of microorganisms at least 3.77 billion years old. "The twisted stalks (as we call them) in modern filamentous iron-oxidising bacteria in hydrothermal vent precipitates are the unwanted excreted product of the metabolism of these bacteria that eat ferrous iron and defecate ferric iron", says Papineau.

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What's more intriguing, however, is how the finding bolsters the case for searching for life on Mars, and may even narrow down the kinds of places on the red planet where we should look.

"We're not talking about these complex forms of life on the early Earth, but this is where we think it actually happened", O'Neil told by phone on Wednesday. "We expect to find evidence for past life on Mars [4 billion] years ago, or if not, Earth may have been a special exception".

That is a time not long after the planet's formation and hundreds of millions of years before what is now accepted as evidence for the most ancient life yet found on Earth.

Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents.

If they are in fact 4.28 billion years old, then that would mean there was life very, very early in Earth's history - as Cyril Ponnamperuma said, it's like "instant life". However, he also points to a study published in Nature last September that found 3.7 billion year old stromatolites in southwest Greenland - not far away from these microfossils.

Secondly, they were found alongside graphite and minerals including carbonate and apatite, which are often formed from chemical compounds that organisms release when they die. They are similar to iron-oxidizing bacteria found near hydrothermal vents today.

UCL's Dominic Papineau, who discovered the fossils, said the setting was "very probably" the cradle for lifeform between 3.77 and 4.28 billion years ago.

Other reports by TheDailyFarc

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