Say, [O Muhammad], “Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation. Indeed Allah, over all things, is competent.” (Surat Al-‘Ankabut 29:20).
That’s what Allah has told us, Muslims, in the Holy Qur’an, and it looks like scientists have just written the first page of the book Life on Earth.
Last week a group of researchers, led by Dominic Papineau of University College London (UCL), announced that they’ve found microfossils in Canada that could be around 4.3 billion years old, which is a mere 200 million years after our planet was formed.
The discovery is formed of tiny filaments, knobs and tubes in rocks representing fossils of some of the earliest living organisms on Planet Earth.
This finding pushes backward the date of the earliest lifeform on Earth some hundreds of millions of years before what is currently accepted as evidence for the most ancient life yet found on Earth.
“We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. But is it not sufficient concerning your Lord that He is, over all things, a Witness?” (Surat Fussilat 41:53).
The scientists’ putative microbes are one-tenth the width of a human hair and contain significant quantities of haematite – a form of iron oxide or “rust”.
Matthew Dodd, who analyzed the structures at UCL stated to BBC that the discovery would shed new light on the origins of life. The researchers report their investigation in the journal Nature.
“This discovery answers the biggest questions mankind has asked itself – which are: where do we come from and why we are here? It is very humbling to have the oldest known lifeforms in your hands and being able to look at them and analyze them,” he expressed impressively.
The fossil structures were encased in quartz layers in the so-called Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt (NSB) in Quebec, Canada. The NSB is a chunk of ancient ocean floor. It contains some of the oldest volcanic and sedimentary rocks known to science.
The team looked at sections of rock that were likely laid down in a system of hydrothermal vents – fissures on the seabed from which heated, mineral-rich waters spew up from below.
Such vents are known to be important habitats for microbes. Papineau thinks this kind of setting was very probably also the cradle for lifeforms between 3.77 and 4.28 billion years ago (the upper and lower age estimates for the NSB rocks).
He described how he felt when he realized the significance of the material on which he was working: “I thought to myself ‘we’ve got it, we’ve got the oldest fossils on the planet’. It relates to our origins. For intelligent life to evolve to a level of consciousness, to a point where it traces back its history to understand its own origin – that’s inspirational.”
In Light of New Discovery
Just before this discovery, the oldest acknowledged evidence of life on Earth was dated to be 3.48-billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia. This material is said to show remnants of stromatolites – mounds of sediment formed of mineral grains glued together by ancient bacteria.
An even older claim for stromatolite traces was made in August 2016. The team behind that finding said their fossil evidence was 3.70 billion years old.
It is often hard to prove that certain ancient structures couldn’t also have been produced by non-biological processes. Papineau does concede though that the idea of metabolizing microorganisms using oxygen so soon after the Earth’s formation will surprise many geologists.
“They wouldn’t consider that there were organisms breathing oxygen at this time. It brings back the production of oxygen on the Earth’s surface, albeit by tiny amounts, to the beginning of the sedimentary record,” he informed.
On her behalf, Prof Nicola McLoughlin from Rhodes University, South Africa told BBC: “The morphology of these argued iron-oxidising filaments from Northern Canada is not convincing. In recent deposits we see spectacular twisted stalks, often arranged in layers, but in the highly metamorphosed rocks of the Nuvvuagittuq belt the filaments are much simpler in shape. The associated textural and geochemical evidence of graphite in carbonate rosettes and magnetite-haematite granules is careful work, but provides only suggestive evidence for microbial activity; it does not strengthen the case for the biogenicity of the filaments.”
Part of the interest in ancient lifeforms is in the implication it has for organisms elsewhere in our Solar System. “These (NTB) organisms come from a time when we believe Mars had liquid water on its surface and a similar atmosphere to Earth at that time. So, if we have lifeforms originating and evolving on Earth at this time then we may very well have had life beginning on Mars,” informed Dodd.
Papineau suggests that NASA’s Martian rover missions have to look for rocks produced by hydrothermal vents on Mars. “On the surface of Mars there have been missed opportunities. The MER Opportunity in 2003 found promising formations but there was no analysis. And the Spirit rover went straight past another near the Comanche outcrop in Gusev crater.”
The suggestion that life had already arisen “just” a few hundred million years after the Earth had formed is intriguing in light of scientific debates about whether life on Earth was a ‘rare accident’ or whether biology is a ‘common outcome’ given the right conditions.