3.3. ASTROBIO – Evidence of Early life on Earth

By | July 6, 2014
3.3. ASTROBIO - Evidence of Early life on Earth

[BLANK_AUDIO] We've seen that the conditions on the
early Earth became clement for life rather early
on. But what is the evidencee for early life
on Earth? The only direct evidence we have is from
fossils and Chemical signatures preserved in the
geological record, and this evidence may Be proof that life was established on the
Earth by 3.5 Billion years ago, possibly as early as
3.8 billion years ago. It's thought that the evidence does
suggest life By 3.8 billion years, then it's likely to
have Arisen some time before that, because that
early Evidence is probably not preserved in the
fossil record. This would suggest that life was present
soon After the formation of the crust and
oceans. And at the end of that period of late
heavy bombardment, that Period of intense asteroid and comet
impacts on the surface of early Earth. Now, before we look At some of that evidence, it's worth
reminding ourselves That the evidence is subject to intense
scientific controversy. And to base, in fact, the evidence for
early life on Earth is one of the most hotly debated
areas of astrobiology. There are several lines of evidence that
have been Developed to suggest the presence of life
on early Earth. One line of evidence of early life on
Earth, is features called stromatolites. Stromatolites is laminated mounds Which formed today in shallow marine
water. You can find them in Shark Bay in
Australia, for example. They're built up by successive
accumulation of sediments And microbes, and also rocks such as
calcium carbonate. So as the microbes form, sediments collect
on top of them and new layers of Microbes form, and eventually you end up With these macroscopically visible mounds
of microbial activity. The oldest stramphrolites have Been found in 3.46 billion year old apex

Church silica rocks in Western Australia's
Warraweena group. One of the reasons why they're so subject
to controversy is because these Mounds, as you can understand, look like Features that can form by non-biological
processes. For example, if sediments are laid down in
shallow marine environments or rivers for Example, they can also form these wavy
textures that look at least, on the large Scale, a little bit like stromatolites. So, further lines of evidence have been
the search for microfossils. Fossils of individual microorganisms in
these stromatolites or other Types of rocks that can be evidence for
life. This 3.46 billion year old stromatholites
in Western Australia contain These filamentous structures which are
thought to resemble modern cynobacteria. That composed of kerogen, Which is the alteration product of heated
and pressurized organic matter. And you can see some examples here of
proported filaments in these apex charts. These micro fossils have also been subject
to intense debate. Particularly because non-biological
processes Can also form filamentous structures. We don't really know the context of these
ancient rocks, So this is another line of evidence,
though, that astrobiologists Seek in order to demonstrate early Life on Earth, fossils of individual
microorganisms. There are also indirect ways to show the
presence of life. And one way is through chemical fossils. For example, carbon that we met earlier in
this course and is the Backbone of most molecules used by life,
comes in different forms or isotopes. For example, there's Carbon-12, which is
the most common type of carbon in the Environment, and Carbon-13. Carbon-13 has seven neutrons, Carbon-12
has six neutrons. In other words, they have a slightly
different atomic mass. Life will preferentially use this lighter
isotope, or Carbon-12. So wherever there has been life, the
carbon in those molecules within that life Will tend to be made up of the Carbon-12
rather than the much rarer Carbon-13. And this

Preferential uptake of this isotope
Carbon-12 can be Used as evidence for the presence of life. And you can see some calcium carbonate
shells Here, in which these early signatures can
be preserved. These are much more recent fossils. But similar sorts of organisms taking out Carbon through photosynthesis, depositing
that carbon either In minerals or in organic matter, can also
be used to find chemical signatures on Early Earth. This so called isotope fractionation, this
preferential uptake of Light, lighter isotopes compared to
heavier isotopes by life, is Seen in carbonate rocks from as far back
as 3.5 Billion years ago and slightly more
controversially earlier as well. So what is the problem with all of this
evidence? These three lines of evidence, macroscopic
features such as stromatolites, Microfossils of individual microorganisms,
and Indirect evidence such as chemical
signatures. Well, first of all, these are rocks very
heavily metamorphosed. In other words, they've been altered by
heat and Pressure since their formation those many
billions of years ago. This makes it much more difficult to
interpret the evidence. The geological settings are usually
uncertain while heavily disputed. We don't know exactly What the conditions were like in the
regions where those early Rocks were formed, and so were they really
conducive for life? That's very important to determine to find
out whether the fossils Or chemical signatures that we see are
really plausible evidence for life. And many of the features that we Observed can be produced by nonbiological
processes. The wavy textures in stromatolites can be
produced in sediments without biology. Microfossils can be formed with similar Types of structures by non biological
processes. Filamenters, non biological structures
that just look like biology. Chemical signatures, isotopic
fractionation can also

Be caused by non biological processes. But scientist think that when this
evidence is taken together, it Does provide some compelling evidence for
life on the early earth. So what have we learned? We've learned that it's thought that life
is established On the Earth by at least 3.5 billion years
ago. The main evidence of this life Comes from macroscopic features such as
stromatolites, Microfossils of creatures, and independent
chemical alterations, Such as the fractionation of carbon
isotopes. Many people dispute this evidence on the
grounds that Similar features could be a result of
non-biological processes. But it does show that the search for life
on early Earth and The evidence for life on early Earth is an
ongoing challenge of astrobiology. And this work will reveal whether the
early life on Earth was established 3.5 Billion years ago or earlier, and what the
nature of this life might have been. [BLANK_AUDIO]