Newly discovered microfossils are the earliest evidence yet of life on Earth
A layer of rock from the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt, Québec in Canada, contains string-like shapes that could be the remains of life forms from 3.7 billion years ago.
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. Scientists are debating their age, although they say the youngest estimate could be about 3.77 billion years.
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".
"At this time in the evolution of the solar system, we also think that Mars had liquid oceans at its surface, which strongly suggests that we should have had life evolve on Mars as well", Dodd says.
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.
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.
The fossils were likely created by bacteria that lived near hydrothermal vents and consumed iron.
Dodd: The significant observations we made include tubular hematite structures and filaments attached to terminal knobs, all of which are also found in younger hydrothermal vent deposits.
During an expedition there, Papineau helped find an especially old-looking lump of rusty rock called jasper, or haematitic chert (haematite is an iron-containing mineral).
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.
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"This makes it clear to me that as soon as we find conditions on an exoplanet that would favour life as we know it, the probability of finding some form of life on that planet is very high".
"There are less than five other places on the planet with rocks as old as these", Dodd said.
If Dr Papineau's fossils are as old as he thinks, that implies that Earth was, within a few hundred million years of its formation, already playing host to very diverse sorts of life.
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.
A team of experts led by Matthew Dodd of University College London (UCL) searched for signs of the earliest habitable environments on our planet. Other scientists have since uncovered what they claim to be even older specimens but until now, the Australian specimens have remained the oldest reliable fossils to date. Rocks at the site have been aged at 4.28 billion years old - around the time (4.6 billion years ago) when the Earth is said to have formed.
Scientists say ancient microbes flourished around those vents billions of years ago and took advantage of the chaotic chemistry to generate fuel.
It would help if we had some idea of how life started on Earth.
So, it was a priority for the UCL-led team to determine whether the remains from Canada had biological origins. While it's hard to say these things for absolute certain, it's thought that an ocean as well as lakes and rivers covered Mars during a period between 4.1 and 3.7 billion years ago, with more limited water sources hanging on for a while after that.
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