Letter

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

Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

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.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:

    $199

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    , , & Carbon isotope geochemistry of the 3.7 × 109-yr old Isua sediments, West Greenland: implications for the Archaean carbon and oxygen cycles. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 43, 189–199 (1979)

  2. 2.

    13C-Depleted carbon microparticles in >3700-Ma sea-floor sedimentary rocks from west greenland. Science 283, 674–676 (1999)

  3. 3.

    & New 1:20000 geological maps, synthesis and history of the Isua supracrustal belt and adjacent gneisses, Nuuk region, southern West Greenland: a glimpse of Eoarchaean crust formation and orogeny. Precambr. Res . 172, 189–211 (2009)

  4. 4.

    , & Stromatolites 3,400–3,500 Myr old from the North Pole area. West. Aust. Nat. (Perth) 284, 443–445 (1980)

  5. 5.

    , , , & Geological setting of Earth’s oldest fossils in the c. 3.5 Ga Dresser Formation, Pilbara craton, Western Australia. Precambr. Res . 167, 93–124 (2008)

  6. 6.

    The origin and evolution of model organisms. Nat. Rev. Genet. 3, 838–849 (2002)

  7. 7.

    in Advances in Stromatolite Geobiology (eds et al.) (Springer-Verlag, 2011)

  8. 8.

    , , , & Stromatolite reef from the Early Archaean era of Australia. Nature 441, 714–718 (2006)

  9. 9.

    , , , & Early Archean microorganisms preferred elemental sulfur, not sulfate. Science 317, 1534–1537 (2007)

  10. 10.

    , & Geological and trace element evidence for marine sedimentary environment of deposition and biogenicity of 3.45 Ga stromatolite carbonates in the Pilbara Craton, and support for a reducing Archean ocean. Geobiology 1, 91–108 (2003)

  11. 11.

    et al. Biogenicity of morphologically diverse carbonaceous microstructures from the ca. 3400 Ma Strelley pool formation, in the Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Astrobiology 10, 899–920 (2010)

  12. 12.

    in Advances in Stromatolite Geobiology: Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences (eds , & ) 517–534 (Springer 2011)

  13. 13.

    et al. Evidence for life on Earth before 3,800 million years ago. Nature 384, 55–59 (1996)

  14. 14.

    , & Reassessing the evidence for the earliest traces of life. Nature 418, 627–630 (2002)

  15. 15.

    et al. Clues from Fe isotope variations on the origin of early Archean BIFs from Greenland. Science 306, 2077–2080 (2004)

  16. 16.

    , , , & Stratigraphic and geochemical evidence for the depositional environment of the early Archaean Isua supracrustal belt, southern West Greenland. Precambr. Res . 25, 365–396 (1984)

  17. 17.

    Metamorphic history suggested by garnet-growth chronologies in the Isua Greenstone Belt, West Greenland. Precambr. Res . 126, 181–196 (2003)

  18. 18.

    , & in Continent Formation Through Time. The Geological Society, London, Special Publications (eds , , , & ) 113–133 (2015)

  19. 19.

    et al. Evidence of evaporites in the genesis of the vanadian grossular ‘tsavorite’ deposit in Namalulul, Tanzania. Can. Mineral. 50, 745–769 (2012)

  20. 20.

    , & Waves and weathering at 3.7 Ga. Geological evidence for an equable terrestrial climate under the faint early Sun. Aust. J. Earth Sci. 59, 167–176 (2012)

  21. 21.

    , & A negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of the earth’s surface temperature. J. Geophys. Res. 86, 9776–9782 (1981)

  22. 22.

    , , , & Contrasting geochemical patterns in the 3.7–3.8 Ga pillow basalts cores and rims, Isua greenstone belt, Southwest Greenland: Implications for post-magmatic alteration. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 67, 441–457 (2003)

  23. 23.

    et al. The problem of deep carbon – an Archean paradox. Precambr. Res . 143, 1–22 (2005)

  24. 24.

    , , , & Microbial mediation as a possible mechanism for natural dolomite at low temperatures. Nature 377, 220–222 (1995)

  25. 25.

    , , , & Microbial precipitation of dolomite in methanogenic groundwater. Geology 32, 277–280 (2004)

  26. 26.

    & An abiotic model for stromatolite morphogenesis. Nature 383, 423–425 (1996)

  27. 27.

    , , , & ≥3700 Ma pre-metamorphic dolomite formed by microbial mediation in the Isua supracrustal belt (W. Greenland): simple evidence for early life? Precambr. Res . 183, 725–737 (2010)

  28. 28.

    , , & Giant ore deposits of the Hamersley province related to the breakup of Paleoproterozoic Australia: New insights from in situ SHRIMP dating of baddelyite in mafic intrusions. Geology 33, 577–580 (2005)

  29. 29.

    in Geochemistry and Mineralogy of Rare Earth Elements (eds & ) 169–200 (Mineralogical Society of America, 1989)

  30. 30.

    , , & Seawater-like trace element signatures (REE+Y) of Eoarchaean chemical sedimentary rocks from southern West Greenland, and their corruption during high grade metamorphism. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 155, 229–246 (2008)

  31. 31.

    & An isotopic study of siderites, dolomites and ankerites at high temperatures. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 50, 1147–1150 (1986)

  32. 32.

    & Oxygen-isotope fractionations in systems containing dolomite. J. Geol. 74, 174–196 (1966)

  33. 33.

    & Compilation of stable isotope fractionation factors of geochemical interest, Chapter KK. Data of Geochemistry. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 440-KK (1977)

  34. 34.

    Characterization and isotopic variations in natural waters. Rev. Mineral. 16, 165–183 (1986)

Download references

Acknowledgements

Support provided by Australian Research Council grant DP120100273 and the GeoQuEST Research Centre, University of Wollongong (UOW). D. Wheeler, UOW, is thanked for technical assistance in carbon and oxygen isotopic analysis. L. Kinsley, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University is thanked for assistance with LA-ICP-MS data acquisition. D. Adams of the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Macquarie University is thanked for assistance with mineral analyses. M. Nancarrow of the Electron Microscopy Centre, UOW is thanked for assistance with SEM-imaging and mineral analyses. P. Gadd of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is thanked for undertaking ITRAX analyses. M.J.V.K. acknowledges support by the University of New South Wales and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems (CCFS). This is contribution 837 from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems (http://www.ccfs.mq.edu.au). Some analytical data were obtained using instrumentation funded by DEST Systemic Infrastructure Grants, ARC LIEF, NCRIS/Auscope industry partners and Macquarie University.

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

Authors

  1. Search for Allen P. Nutman in:

  2. Search for Vickie C. Bennett in:

  3. Search for Clark R. L. Friend in:

  4. Search for Martin J. Van Kranendonk in:

  5. Search for Allan R. Chivas in:

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 interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Allen P. Nutman.

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.

Extended data