World's Oldest Fossils Found In Canada

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

Scientists studying ancient rock formations in Quebec have identified microscopic structures in the rock that they believe are the fossilized remains of microorganisms that lived on Earth between 3.7 and 4.28 billion years ago.

Encased in quartz layers, scientists found tiny filaments and tubes measuring half the width of a human hair, which were supposedly formed by bacteria that lived on iron.

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. Dominic Papineau Papineau hopes that the whole scientific community will accept their findings and will prove it true. She said, however, that it may be a challenge proving the origins of the fossils were biological.

Tiny granules that might have formed when these organic life-forms decayed and reacted with seafloor minerals also point to life, as similar granules are found around more modern fossils, such as those of ammonites, Dodd said. The Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt is some of the oldest sedimentary rock on the planet-it is between 3.7 billion and 4.29 billion years old.

If the researchers are right about what they've found, this would be the oldest direct evidence of life we've ever seen.

Prior to the new discovery, researchers had previously found the earliest forms of life on Earth in microfossils spotted in Western Australia in 2013.

"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.

To uncover the fossils, we cut slices of the rocks so thin you could see through them and study them with a microscope. 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.

"Within the last 15, 20 years, we have more and more evidence that that's not the case", he said.

A patch of iron-rich rock found in northwestern Canada that contains the oldest evidence of life on Earth.

No one knows how life on earth began but there are multiple theories, one of which revolves around the idea that ancient deep-sea hydrothermal vents might have been one of the earliest places to support ancient life. The latter are found near vents that also have graphite and apatite not to mention carbonate in them. Furthermore, the 3.7-billion-year-old fossils found in Greenland could have gotten their intriguing chemical signature from a nonbiological process, according to the new study, which was published today (March 1) in the journal Nature. They say the structures they found are frequently associated with fossils formed by bacteria oxidizing iron for energy.

"Therefore, we expect to find evidence for past life on Mars 4,000m years ago or, if not, Earth may have been a special exception", he said.

This find, like other claims of early life on Earth, is not without controversy.

Together, this evidence very clearly demonstrates a strong biological presence in the 3,770m- to 4,280m-year-old rocks, pushing back the date of the earliest known microfossils by 300m years. "These pathways are, I think, a little bit too complex to have arisen so early and have resisted space and then seeded Earth".

"Depending on how the age controversy of these rocks plays out, we may have very different question and answer to where the origin of life may have been on earth", Dodd says.

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