Thursday, 27 April, 2017

Billion Year Old Fossil Means Life On Mars Is Likely

Hematite tubes from the NSB hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. Image credit Matthew Dodd University College London Oldest fossil ever found on Earth shows alien life on Mars is likely
Heather Davidson | 02 March, 2017, 00:24

That most rare and unique thing called life took hold on Earth far earlier than scientists thought, a new fossil discovery has shown.

He added that bands of zircon mixed into the sample, which would have likely formed later from melted bedrock, were determined to be at least 3.8 billion years old.

An worldwide team led by University College London scientists found tiny filaments and tubes formed by ancient bacteria encased in quartz layers from Quebec's Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt (NSB), home to some of the oldest sedimentary rocks on Earth. Significantly, they seem to preserve evidence of ancient deep-sea hydrothermal vents - just the sort of environment that many see as the most likely birthplace for life.

Now, a team led by geochemist Dominic Papineau of University College London and his Ph.D. student Matthew Dodd says it has found clear evidence of such ancient vent life.

"The microfossils we found were within rocks that have a minimum age of 3.77 billion years, but some scientists in the field estimate them to be as old as 4.28 billion years", lead author Dr Dominic Papineau, from UCL Earth Sciences and the London Centre for Nanotechnology said. Last year, scientists reported the discovery of stromatolites - formations built by ancient microbes - dating to 3.7 billion years ago. Scientists examining the chemical makeup of some of the Earth's oldest rocks, located in northwestern Canada, may have found the oldest-known chemical fossils of bacteria.

The iron-eating fossil bacteria were extracted from rocks recovered from the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt in Quebec. A similar claim of microfossils in 3.5-billion-year-old rocks from Western Australia has always been disputed.

Stronger evidence for ancient fossils comes from several findings in rocks at around 3.5 billion years old, she said.

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).

He argued these rocks would have been subjected to enormous temperature and pressure changes, which could have a range of effects on the minerals contained within them.

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They say that this suggests that there could also be life lurking on Mars, and say that their findings 'pose exciting questions for extra-terrestrial life'.

Dodd also used the discovery to theorize about life on another planet. Given the long-standing theory that the origin of life happened in hydrothermal vent environments, we knew that these rocks were ideal choices to look for Earth's oldest lifeforms.

"These rocks are crosscut by lots of different hydrothermal vanes; over 4 billion years, lots of fluids have moved through these rocks", Konhauser said. Similar granules are often associated with fossils in younger rocks, the authors wrote.

In addition they were discovered alongside minerals such as graphite, apatite and carbonate which are commonly found in living organisms.

Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. And if they're right, the find is staggering indeed.

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.

The trouble is that it's hard for scientists to pin down signs of tiny life-forms that lived billions of years ago, when the Earth has gone through so many other changes since then.

So, although multiple individual lines of evidence do point to the structures being evidence of life, the problem occurs when they try to weave those pieces of evidence into a complex story, Konhauser said.

That doesn't necessarily mean that life originated in deep waters rather than in shallow seas, Papineau says.

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