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Oldest fossils ever found show life on Earth began before 3.5 billion years ago

 
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12/19/2017 01:06 AM
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Oldest fossils ever found show life on Earth began before 3.5 billion years ago
Researchers at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have confirmed that microscopic fossils discovered in a nearly 3.5 billion-year-old piece of rock in Western Australia are the oldest fossils ever found and indeed the earliest direct evidence of life on Earth.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by J. William Schopf, professor of paleobiology at UCLA, and John W. Valley, professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The research relied on new technology and scientific expertise developed by researchers in the UW-Madison WiscSIMS Laboratory.

The study describes 11 microbial specimens from five separate taxa, linking their morphologies to chemical signatures that are characteristic of life. Some represent now-extinct bacteria and microbes from a domain of life called Archaea, while others are similar to microbial species still found today. The findings also suggest how each may have survived on an oxygen-free planet.

The microfossils—so called because they are not evident to the naked eye—were first described in the journal Science in 1993 by Schopf and his team, which identified them based largely on the fossils' unique, cylindrical and filamentous shapes. Schopf, director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, published further supporting evidence of their biological identities in 2002.

He collected the rock in which the fossils were found in 1982 from the Apex chert deposit of Western Australia, one of the few places on the planet where geological evidence of early Earth has been preserved, largely because it has not been subjected to geological processes that would have altered it, like burial and extreme heating due to plate-tectonic activity.

But Schopf's earlier interpretations have been disputed. Critics argued they are just odd minerals that only look like biological specimens. However, Valley says, the new findings put these doubts to rest; the microfossils are indeed biological.

"I think it's settled," he says.

Read more at: [link to phys.org (secure)]
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