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- Geologists found large spherical fossils thought to be from microbial life
- Microbes lived in the ocean depths before Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere
- Researchers claim they are the oldest bacteria of their kind to be found
- It is thought they got energy from sulfur compounds seeping out from the Earth’s crust, similar to bacteria found at hydrothermal vents today
Tiny bubble-like structures found in ancient rocks show life was thriving in the harshest of conditions billions of years ago – without sunlight or even oxygen. Researchers have discovered fossils of ancient bacteria dating back 2.5 billion years, long before the planet’s atmosphere became rich in oxygen. They believe the microbes, which fed off sulfur, are the oldest of their kind ever discovered, hinting at diverse ecosystems in the planet’s past.
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Geologists from the University of Cincinnati uncovered the fossils during field expeditions in South Africa. They found evidence of large microbes which survived at a time when atmospheric oxygen levels were just a fraction of what they are today.
Life is thought to have gotten a foothold on Earth almost 3.5 billion years ago, on a very different planet to today, with an atmosphere of made up of mainly carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.
Over millions of years, early life forms thought to be related to photosynthesizing cyanobacteria gradually leaked oxygen into the atmosphere, leading to the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) more than 2.3 billion years ago.
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It was this tipping point which set the stage for the explosion of complex life later on.
Samples collected by the team in South Africa indicate that microbes were thriving in the depths of the early oceans between 2.8 and 2.5 billion years ago during the Neoarchean Eon. They found large, spherical structure far larger than modern bacteria, which can be dated to around 2.52 billion year ago. These ancient microbes survived by oxidizing sulfur, just like bacteria; communities found at hydrothermal vents in the ocean depths today.
Evidence of hydrothermal events beyond Earth, such as on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, make it an attractive place in the hunt for extraterrestrial microbial life. What makes the recent find so important is the rarity of billion-year-old rocks dating back to the Earth’s ancient past, with only few sites in South Africa and Australia. ‘These are the oldest reported fossil sulfur bacteria to date,’ said Dr Andrew Czaja, a geologist at UC. ‘And this discovery is helping us reveal a diversity of life and ecosystems that existed just prior to the Great Oxidation Event, a time of major atmospheric evolution.’
Evidence suggests that life likely originated around deep ocean vents, feeding off of the hydrogen and sulfur spewed out from under the crust.
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Just like colonies inhabiting vents today, the ancient microbes would have likely gotten their energy from hydrogen sulfide, releasing suphate as a waste product. Other microbes could have then fed off of these waste products.
Analysis of isotopes in the rocks suggest the bacteria were around before photosynthesizing bacteria in shallower waters emerged – which led to the boost in oxygen. ‘While I can’t claim that these early bacteria are the same ones we have today, we surmise that they may have been doing the same thing as some of our current bacteria,’ explained Dr Czaja. ‘These early bacteria likely consumed the molecules dissolved from sulfur-rich minerals that came from land rocks that had eroded and washed out to sea, or from the volcanic remains on the ocean’s floor.’ He added: ‘These fossils tell us that sulfur-oxidizing bacteria were there 2.52 billion years ago, and they were doing something remarkable.’
The findings are published in the journal Geology this month.
They add that because of the close connection between life on Earth, the biosphere, and the atmosphere, studies of these ancient microbes could help to build more accurate models of the early Earth and the compositions of its atmosphere and oceans.