Earth is over 4,500 million years old. Massive bombardment of the planet took place for the first 500–700 million years, and the largest impacts would have been capable of sterilizing the planet. Probably until 4,000 million years ago or later, occasional impacts might have heated the ocean over 100 °C. Life on Earth dates from before about 3,800 million years ago, and is likely to have gone through one or more hot-ocean 'bottlenecks'. Only hyperthermophiles (organisms optimally living in water at 80–110 °C) would have survived. It is possible that early life diversified near hydrothermal vents, but hypotheses that life first occupied other pre-bottleneck habitats are tenable (including transfer from Mars on ejecta from impacts there). Early hyperthermophile life, probably near hydrothermal systems, may have been non-photosynthetic, and many housekeeping proteins and biochemical processes may have an original hydrothermal heritage. The development of anoxygenic and then oxygenic photosynthesis would have allowed life to escape the hydrothermal setting. By about 3,500 million years ago, most of the principal biochemical pathways that sustain the modern biosphere had evolved, and were global in scope.
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We thank many colleagues for comment (and some helpful disagreement), including W. Bleeker, J. Bowyer, R. Buick, N. Butterfield, D. Catling, F. Dyson, M. Fowler, N. Grassineau, B. Pierson, M. Schidlowski, C. Tickell and K. Zahnle. The work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust and NERC. EGN's contribution derives from a Macgregor Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Geological Society of Zimbabwe.
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Nisbet, E., Sleep, N. The habitat and nature of early life. Nature 409, 1083–1091 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35059210
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