The earliest evidence of life on land has been discovered in 3.48 billion-year-old hot spring deposits in Australia, scientists said today, suggesting life took to land some 580 million years earlier than thought. The finding could help solve one of the most important debates in evolution – whether life on Earth arose in small, terrestrial ponds, or deep in the ocean, researchers said. Previously, the world’s oldest evidence for microbial life on land came from 2.7-2.9 billion-year-old deposits in South Africa containing organic matter-rich ancient soils. Scientists at University of New South Wales (UNSW) have now discovered fossils in 3.48 billion year old hot spring deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia that have pushed back by 580 million years the earliest known existence of microbial life on land.
“Our exciting findings do not just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by 3 billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, by up to about 580 million years,” said UNSW PhD candidate Tara Djokic. “This may have implications for an origin of life in freshwater hot springs on land, rather than the more widely discussed idea that life developed in the ocean and adapted to land later,” said Djokic, first author of the study published in the journal Nature Communications. Scientists are considering two hypotheses regarding the origin of life. Either that it began in deep sea hydrothermal vents, or alternatively that it began on land in a version of English biologist Charles Darwin’s “warm little pond”.
“The discovery of potential biological signatures in these ancient hot springs in Western Australia provides a geological perspective that may lend weight to a land-based origin of life,” said Djokic. The finding also has major implications for the search for life on Mars, because the red planet has ancient hot spring deposits of a similar age to the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara, researchers said. “Of the top three potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover, Columbia Hills is indicated as a hot spring environment,” said Djokic. “If life can be preserved in hot springs so far back in Earth’s history, then there is a good chance it could be preserved in Martian hot springs too,” Djokic said.
Researchers, including Professor Kathleen Campbell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, studied exceptionally well-preserved deposits which are about 3.5 billion years old in the ancient Dresser Formation. They interpreted the deposits were formed on land, not in the ocean, by identifying the presence of geyserite – a mineral deposit formed from near boiling-temperature, silica- rich, fluids that is only found in a terrestrial hot spring environment. Previously, the oldest known geyserite had been identified from rocks about 400 million years old.Within the Pilbara hotspring deposits, the researchers also discovered stromatolites – layered rock structures created by communities of ancient microbes.
There were other signs of early life in the deposits as well, including fossilised micro-stromatolites, microbial palisade texture and well preserved bubbles that are inferred to have been trapped in a sticky substance (microbial) to preserve the bubble shape. This shows a diverse variety of life existed in fresh water, on land, very early in Earth’s history,” said Professor Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology. “The Pilbara deposits are the same age as much of the crust of Mars, which makes hot spring deposits on the red planet an exciting target for our quest to find fossilised life there,” said Kranendonk.