Oldest Evidence of Life?

By Ben Ladabaum ’20

On March 1, 2017, a team of scientists in Canada, led by Dr. Dominic Papineau, claimed to have found evidence of the oldest life on Earth. While studying a formation of rocks that formed around hydrothermal vents 3.77-4.2 billion years ago, the scientists discovered tiny filament-shaped divots etched into the rocks, which they claim are bacterial fossils.

However, many within the scientific community remain skeptical of this discovery. The filaments, they claim, are too large to be bacterial fossils, pointing to the tiny amount of oxygen in the atmosphere 4 billion years ago as a limiting factor in bacterial size. In addition, they argue that the scorching temperatures on Earth were even too hot for bacteria adapted to living near hydrothermal vents.

Nonetheless, there is significant evidence in favor of the bacterial fossils. Firstly, the fossils are similar to bacteria that are known to live around hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor today. Second, the rocks contain iron compounds, which are a known food source for hydrothermal bacteria. Lastly, the filaments appear to be attached to round clumps, which are similar to the structures that present-day hydrothermal use to attach themselves to rock.

If this is discovery is proven true, it will have tremendous implications not only for the story of life on Earth, but also for the search for life outside of Earth. Since the Earth is only 4.55 billion years old, the existence of bacteria 4.2 billion years ago reveals that life began incredibly quickly on a geological time-scale. In addition, the existence of these bacteria suggests that life on Earth originated near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. Scientists could look for similar fossils on Mars for evidence of past life on our red neighbor. It also provides more reason to believe that life could exist on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Beneath an icy crust, Europa contains an ocean made of liquid water that is heated by geothermal energy.




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