Article

Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates

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Abstract

Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite–haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils. Collectively, these observations are consistent with an oxidized biomass and provide evidence for biological activity in submarine-hydrothermal environments more than 3,770 million years ago.

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Acknowledgements

M.S.D. and D.P. acknowledge support from UCL and the LCN, and a DTG from EPSRC, UK. D.P. also thanks the NASA Astrobiology Institute (grant no. NNA04CC09A), the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Carnegie of Canada for funding, and the Geological Survey of Western Australia for access and support in the core library. We thank the municipality of Inukjuak, Québec, and the Pituvik Landholding Corporation for permission to work on their territory; M. Carroll for logistical support; J. Davy and A. Beard for assistance with sample preparation and SEM and EPMA analyses; S. Huo for help with FIB nano-fabrication; G. and Y. Shields-Zhou and P. Pogge Von Strandmann for comments on the manuscript; and K. Konhauser for review.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. London Centre for Nanotechnology, 17-19 Gordon Street, London WC1H 0AH, UK

    • Matthew S. Dodd
    •  & Dominic Papineau
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Matthew S. Dodd
    • , Dominic Papineau
    •  & Martin Rittner
  3. Geological Survey of Norway, Leiv Eirikssons vei 39, 7040 Trondheim, Norway

    • Tor Grenne
  4. U.S. Geological Survey, National Center, MS 954, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA

    • John F. Slack
  5. Centre for Exploration Targeting, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia

    • Franco Pirajno
  6. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Jonathan O’Neil
  7. School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Crispin T. S. Little

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Contributions

M.S.D. and D.P. designed the research and performed micro-analyses. They also wrote the manuscript with important contributions from all co-authors. M.R. conducted LA-ICP-MS analyses. T.G. provided support for field work in Norway. T.G., J.F.S., F.P., and D.P. all supplied samples crucial to the work. J.O. and C.T.S.L. contributed to interpretation of the data.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dominic Papineau.

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

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