Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Earliest life or rare dirt?


Life forms: Schopf thinks these marks are fossils of ancient bacteria.
© Nature

Dishing the dirt: Brasier’s team reckons geological processes made the squiggles.
© Nature

Gloves are coming off in ancient bacteria bust-up.

A claim to have found evidence of the oldest living things on Earth is being fiercely contested. The argument looks set to run and run, and no one may win, but it may lead to a better understanding of the origins of life on our planet.

The debate is academic, but its implications are not. The ’fossil bacteria’ in question are around 3.5 billion years old. That’s roughly one billion years older than the only confirmed fossil bacteria.

This would mean that complex biochemistry - including photosynthesis - originated around one billion years after the Earth formed. Photosynthesis released oxygen into the atmosphere, which has supported the majority of life ever since.

Dark microscopic squiggles in rocks called ’Apex chert’ from Western Australia, are the fossils of various species of cyanobacteria, according to William Schopf of the University of California, Los Angeles1.

A team led by Martin Brasier at the University of Oxford, UK, believes that Schopf’s ’fossils’, although unusual, are simply tiny clumps of impurities in the rock2.

Fellow researchers are loath to be named for fear of "exacerbating what looks like becoming an acrimonious debate", according to one. They are nonetheless following the details closely. "This is a fascinating debate," says another.

Most agree that the age of the Apex chert rocks may preclude either side ever being proved right.

Technical point

Schopf’s team studied the structure and chemical composition of the squiggles with a technique called laser-Raman imagery. The group argues that the marks are made up of carbon molecules, which are the decay products of living bacterial cells. "They are tiny little fossils," says Schopf.

Brasier’s team repeated some of Schopf’s analyses recently and disagrees. "Schopf’s hypothesis is deeply flawed," Brasier says.

Brasier’s team agrees that the marks’ chemical composition appears biological in origin. But the group thinks that they actually arose through unusual geological processes around ancient hydrothermal vents, where hot volcanic gases rise to the surface.

What’s more, the group says, the squiggles look nothing like other ancient microbes. "The shapes are far too complicated to be bacteria," says Brasier, who feels Schopf should drop his claim.

Brasier’s group asserts that biological-seeming molecules can result from reactions between the carbon dioxide and monoxide released by hot, metal-rich hydrothermal vents. These molecules could then have been sculpted into bacteria-esque filaments as the hot rocks they were born in cooled.

If this was the case, argues Schopf, such material would be found everywhere. So far it hasn’t been. "The facts are going to win and I’ve got the data," he says.


The one thing both parties agree on is that only time will tell. Schopf is continuing to analyse his putative fossils. A nanoscale examination of their ’cell membranes’ will, he claims, prove beyond doubt that the Apex chert does contain the oldest known remains of life on Earth.

Brasier and his team are now investigating the kind of chemical reactions that they believe produced the squiggles. The researchers suspect the reactions could themselves have created complex molecules such as amino acids and be the source of life on Earth. "Schopf may have stumbled on a site that may explain how life got started," says Brasier.


  1. Schopf, J. W., Kudryavtsev, A. B., Agresti, D. G., Wdowiak, T. J. & Czaja, A. D. Laser-Raman imagery of Earth’s earliest fossils. Nature, 416, 73 - 76, (2002).
  2. Brasier, D. M. et al. Questioning the evidence for Earth’s oldest fossils. Nature, 416, 76 - 81, (2002).

TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht ‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans
24.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für marine Mikrobiologie

nachricht Calcium Induces Chronic Lung Infections
24.10.2016 | Universität Basel

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>