Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
537,
Pages:
535–538
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature19355
Received
Accepted
Published online

Biological activity is a major factor in Earth’s chemical cycles, including facilitating CO2 sequestration and providing climate feedbacks. Thus a key question in Earth’s evolution is when did life arise and impact hydrosphere–atmosphere–lithosphere chemical cycles? Until now, evidence for the oldest life on Earth focused on debated stable isotopic signatures of 3,800–3,700 million year (Myr)-old metamorphosed sedimentary rocks and minerals1, 2 from the Isua supracrustal belt (ISB), southwest Greenland3. Here we report evidence for ancient life from a newly exposed outcrop of 3,700-Myr-old metacarbonate rocks in the ISB that contain 1–4-cm-high stromatolites—macroscopically layered structures produced by microbial communities. The ISB stromatolites grew in a shallow marine environment, as indicated by seawater-like rare-earth element plus yttrium trace element signatures of the metacarbonates, and by interlayered detrital sedimentary rocks with cross-lamination and storm-wave generated breccias. The ISB stromatolites predate by 220 Myr the previous most convincing and generally accepted multidisciplinary evidence for oldest life remains in the 3,480-Myr-old Dresser Formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia4, 5. The presence of the ISB stromatolites demonstrates the establishment of shallow marine carbonate production with biotic CO2 sequestration by 3,700 million years ago (Ma), near the start of Earth’s sedimentary record. A sophistication of life by 3,700 Ma is in accord with genetic molecular clock studies placing life’s origin in the Hadean eon (>4,000 Ma)6.

At a glance

Figures

  1. ISB site A stromatolites and younger ones from Western Australia. a, Site A stromatolites.
    Figure 1: ISB site A stromatolites and younger ones from Western Australia. a, Site A stromatolites.

    Image is inverted because layering is overturned in a fold. b, Interpretation of a, with isolated stromatolite (strom) and aggregate of stromatolites (stroms). Locally, lamination is preserved in the stromatolites (blue lines). Layering in the overlying sediment (red lines) onlaps onto the stromatolite sides. A weak tectonic foliation is indicated (green lines). c, Asymmetrical stromatolite and d, linked domical stromatolites from the Palaeoproterozoic28 Wooly Dolomite, Western Australia. The lens cap is 4 cm in diameter. Image c is left-right-reversed for comparison with panels a, b.

  2. ISB stromatolite mineralogical textures and site B and C occurrences.
    Figure 2: ISB stromatolite mineralogical textures and site B and C occurrences.

    a, SEM image showing quartz (qtz) and dolomite (dol) equilibrium, with phlogopite (phlog) and pyrite + magnetite (py-mag). Blue crosses with numerals are energy dispersive spectra analytical sites. b, Site B dolostone (dolostone) has domical interface with cross-laminated dolomitic sandstone (dol + qtz; image top). The red arrow indicates erosional scouring of a layer. ‘C’ indicates the site of the thin section in c. Pen for scale. c, Photomicrograph from the domical interface, showing draping of phlogopite + dolomite layers (blue arrows) within sediment immediately above a dolostone domical structure. d, Site C breccia with layered chert (ch) and dolomite (dol) jumbled clasts.

  3. PAAS-normalized (post-Archaean average shale)
    Figure 3: PAAS-normalized (post-Archaean average shale)29

    rare-earth element and yttrium plot. Site A sample G12/96 Isua stromatolite dolomites and bounding sedimentary rocks are in situ laser-ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy analyses from the block shown in Extended Data Fig. 4. An ~3,700-Myr-old Isua banded iron formation sample30 and an East Pilbara dolomitic stromatolite10 are shown for comparison. Diagnostic of the seawater-like signature are positive yttrium (Y) and lanthanum (La) anomalies. See Methods for analytical methods and Extended Data Table 2 for analyses.

  4. Geological map and location of the described localities A, B and C.
    Extended Data Fig. 1: Geological map and location of the described localities A, B and C.

    a, Geological map covering the described localities. The outcrops for localities A, B and C are indicated. b, Position of locality in the ISB. c, Panoramic view towards the southeast over the described localities. In the foreground are the banded iron formation and chert outcrops in the northwest corner of the map a. The 15–20 m thick Ameralik dyke forms the skyline.

  5. Background information on the preservation of sedimentary structures and overviews of the outcrops A and B.
    Extended Data Fig. 2: Background information on the preservation of sedimentary structures and overviews of the outcrops A and B.

    a, Thin section of calc–silicate rocks ~5 m south of site A. The strain is still low, but there was ingress of an H2O-rich fluid phase during metamorphism. Tremolite (green) is developed extensively in the left-hand side of the section, from a reaction between dolomite and quartz in the presence of the H2O-rich fluid. The original sedimentary layering (vertical within the slide) is severely disrupted by the tremolite growth, with development of a foliation orientated from lower left to upper right. b, Thin section from site B where quartz and dolomite are still in equilibrium because a CO2-rich fluid phase was maintained during metamorphism. Fine-scale sedimentary structures are preserved (approximately horizontal across the slide). Foliation is absent. Both thin sections are shown at the same scale and are approximately 2 cm wide. c, Overview of site A. Image inverted because outcrop is in an overturned fold limb. The red rectangle is the area shown in Fig. 1a, b. The two red parallel lines indicate the sawn block in Extended Data Fig. 4.The red arrows point to three layers with stromatolites. Field of view is 2 m. d, Overview of site B. The detailed area shown in Fig. 2b, c is indicated by a red arrow.

  6. Imaging of a locality A stromatolite.
    Extended Data Fig. 3: Imaging of a locality A stromatolite.

    Stromatolite structure from site A. a, SEM backscattered electron image of an area near the top of the stromatolite shown in c. Variation in brightness is governed by quartz (duller) versus dolomite (brighter) grains. A subtle millimetre-scale layering is visible running horizontally across the image, that is, parallel to the top of the stromatolite. This was investigated further by examining the relative greyscales of the pixels forming the right-hand side of the image (red box in a). The other side of this image was not used in pixel analysis, because of the black field (beyond the edge of the scanned sample). b, Variation in grey scale. c, Sampling sites for carbonate oxygen and carbon isotope analysis (Extended Data Table 3).

  7. Locality A stromatolite sawn blocks.
    Extended Data Fig. 4: Locality A stromatolite sawn blocks.

    Locality A sawn block. a, Montage of four sides of block. b, Sampling site pre- and post-removal of block. c, Location of analyses A-1 to A-11 (Extended Data Table 2). Note the onlap of this horizontal bedding to the stromatolite margin on the first block side. d, X-ray fluorescence ITRAX scans of a locality A stromatolite culmination and the laterally equivalent horizon. Scans are given as relative counts per second on the relevant X-ray peak. This shows the featured stromatolite layer (‘d’ on the image of the rock slice) has much lower Ti and K abundances (denoting the phlogopite proxy for a lower mud content) compared with the layers above and below.

Tables

  1. Mineral analyses
    Extended Data Table 1: Mineral analyses
  2. Whole-rock analyses of stromatolites and related rocks
    Extended Data Table 2: Whole-rock analyses of stromatolites and related rocks
  3. Carbon and oxygen isotopic analysis of a site A stromatolite
    Extended Data Table 3: Carbon and oxygen isotopic analysis of a site A stromatolite

References

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  11. Sugitani, K.et al. Biogenicity of morphologically diverse carbonaceous microstructures from the ca. 3400 Ma Strelley pool formation, in the Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Astrobiology 10, 899920 (2010)
  12. Van Kranendonk, M. J. in Advances in Stromatolite Geobiology: Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences (eds Reitner, J., Queric, N.-V. & Arp, G.) 517534 (Springer 2011)
  13. Mojzsis, S. J.et al. Evidence for life on Earth before 3,800 million years ago. Nature 384, 5559 (1996)
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Author information

Affiliations

  1. GeoQuEST Research Centre, School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • Allen P. Nutman &
    • Allan R. Chivas
  2. Australian Centre for Astrobiology, University of New South Wales, Kensington, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Allen P. Nutman &
    • Martin J. Van Kranendonk
  3. Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • Vickie C. Bennett
  4. Glendale, Tiddington, Oxon, Oxford OX9 2LQ, UK

    • Clark R. L. Friend
  5. School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Kensington, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Martin J. Van Kranendonk
  6. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Kensington, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Martin J. Van Kranendonk

Contributions

A.P.N. and V.C.B. undertook field work, acquisition of geochemical data and interpretation of the results. C.R.L.F. undertook fieldwork and interpretation of the results. M.J.V.K. interpreted the Isua stromatolite morphology and compared them with those from the Pilbara region of Western Australia and supplied the photographs for Fig. 1c, d. A.R.C. acquired and interpreted the stable isotope data. A.P.N. wrote the paper and all authors read and contributed comments to the work.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Reviewer Information Nature thanks J. Gutzmer, A. Polat, M. Tice and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author details

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figures

  1. Extended Data Figure 1: Geological map and location of the described localities A, B and C. (785 KB)

    a, Geological map covering the described localities. The outcrops for localities A, B and C are indicated. b, Position of locality in the ISB. c, Panoramic view towards the southeast over the described localities. In the foreground are the banded iron formation and chert outcrops in the northwest corner of the map a. The 15–20 m thick Ameralik dyke forms the skyline.

  2. Extended Data Figure 2: Background information on the preservation of sedimentary structures and overviews of the outcrops A and B. (1,177 KB)

    a, Thin section of calc–silicate rocks ~5 m south of site A. The strain is still low, but there was ingress of an H2O-rich fluid phase during metamorphism. Tremolite (green) is developed extensively in the left-hand side of the section, from a reaction between dolomite and quartz in the presence of the H2O-rich fluid. The original sedimentary layering (vertical within the slide) is severely disrupted by the tremolite growth, with development of a foliation orientated from lower left to upper right. b, Thin section from site B where quartz and dolomite are still in equilibrium because a CO2-rich fluid phase was maintained during metamorphism. Fine-scale sedimentary structures are preserved (approximately horizontal across the slide). Foliation is absent. Both thin sections are shown at the same scale and are approximately 2 cm wide. c, Overview of site A. Image inverted because outcrop is in an overturned fold limb. The red rectangle is the area shown in Fig. 1a, b. The two red parallel lines indicate the sawn block in Extended Data Fig. 4.The red arrows point to three layers with stromatolites. Field of view is 2 m. d, Overview of site B. The detailed area shown in Fig. 2b, c is indicated by a red arrow.

  3. Extended Data Figure 3: Imaging of a locality A stromatolite. (581 KB)

    Stromatolite structure from site A. a, SEM backscattered electron image of an area near the top of the stromatolite shown in c. Variation in brightness is governed by quartz (duller) versus dolomite (brighter) grains. A subtle millimetre-scale layering is visible running horizontally across the image, that is, parallel to the top of the stromatolite. This was investigated further by examining the relative greyscales of the pixels forming the right-hand side of the image (red box in a). The other side of this image was not used in pixel analysis, because of the black field (beyond the edge of the scanned sample). b, Variation in grey scale. c, Sampling sites for carbonate oxygen and carbon isotope analysis (Extended Data Table 3).

  4. Extended Data Figure 4: Locality A stromatolite sawn blocks. (1,104 KB)

    Locality A sawn block. a, Montage of four sides of block. b, Sampling site pre- and post-removal of block. c, Location of analyses A-1 to A-11 (Extended Data Table 2). Note the onlap of this horizontal bedding to the stromatolite margin on the first block side. d, X-ray fluorescence ITRAX scans of a locality A stromatolite culmination and the laterally equivalent horizon. Scans are given as relative counts per second on the relevant X-ray peak. This shows the featured stromatolite layer (‘d’ on the image of the rock slice) has much lower Ti and K abundances (denoting the phlogopite proxy for a lower mud content) compared with the layers above and below.

Extended Data Tables

  1. Extended Data Table 1: Mineral analyses (299 KB)
  2. Extended Data Table 2: Whole-rock analyses of stromatolites and related rocks (389 KB)
  3. Extended Data Table 3: Carbon and oxygen isotopic analysis of a site A stromatolite (91 KB)

Additional data