In August of 2011, University of Oxford Paleontology Martin Brasier announced that he had found what was likely one of Earth’s oldest life-forms – a bacteria that had been fossilized for 3.4 billions years.
/READ MORE// The life code that will reshape the future
The incredible claim brought added fuel to a simmering fire – UCLA’s Bill Schopf claimed to have found a 3.46 billion year old organisms back in 1993 and Brasier publicly questioned those findings in 2002 – the pair have been feuding ever since.
The gossipy quarrel is juicy itself, but it actually carried major importance: Both discoveries provide contrasting insight into Earth’s first lifeforms, and could be indicative of what life could look like outside of our own planet.
“When I was young, everyone lost interest if it wasn’t little green men…But now we want to know if there is other life out there, even on the bacterial level.”
Our planet was a very different place 3.4 billion years ago: There were no plants to grow on the few bare patches of land that sat on top of a hot, shallow, planet-wide ocean. Meteor strikes were common occurrences, the atmosphere was made of carbon dioxide and sulphur – almost no oxygen. These are the conditions scientists believe gave rise to all life as we know it.
Schopf’s fossile find was in Western Australia. They indicate Earth’s first life resembled cyanobacteria – single-celled organisms that turned sunlight into energy. The surrounding rock suggested these bacteria life in a sea, near hydrothermal vents which pumped out hot, mineral-rick water. Brasier’s find was only 20 miles away from Schopf’s but had a wildly different interpretation. Those surrounding rocks suggested these organisms used sulphur to create energy, and lived in shallow waters close to the shore.
Palaeontologists will have to keep reviewing the evidence to figure out which interpretation is the more accurate one, but for now, both discoveries are providing scientists with models for the kind of life that could exists elsewhere in the galaxy.