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

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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Figure 1: Transmitted light images of haematite filaments from the NSB and Løkken jaspers.
Figure 2: Transmitted light images of haematite tubes in the NSB and Løkken jaspers.
Figure 3: Carbonate rosettes from the NSB.
Figure 4: Granules from the Biwabik and NSB jaspers.

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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.

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Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dominic Papineau.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

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

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Field photographs of the NSB iron formation outcrops.

a, Bands of magnetite and chert. b, Jasper (top red layer) in contact with Fe-rich carbonate (bottom grey layer). c, Layered jaspers with meta-volcanic layers. d, Layered jasper; predominantly bands of grey haematite and haematitic chert. e, Field location, local geology and sample locations (red spots).

Extended Data Figure 2 Rare earth element (REE) post-Archean Australian shale (PAAS) normalized plots.

a, LA-ICP-MS REE measurements in apatite from PC0844. b, Jasper bulk rock REE measurements from PC0824 (dark grey) and PC0844 (light grey). NSB (red15 and green16) and Isua51 (blue) iron formation bulk rock REE.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Thin sections of samples in this study (see Supplementary Information for localities).

Inset in a shows reflected light image of small, sub-spherical chalcopyrites with haematite. Red outlines mark haematite tubes and tube-like structures. Red arrows show the orientation of tubes. Blue circles highlight concretion structure in thin section and slab. Numbering of targets corresponds to Figures. Inset in e shows transmitted light image of carbonaceous material inside apatite lath. All sections are 2.5 cm wide, except rock slab (f) measuring 7 × 2 cm; Løkken-Høydal dimensions (ko) are 2 × 6 cm, except JAH samples in n, which measure 2 × 8 cm.

Extended Data Figure 4 Photomicrographs taken in plane-polarized light with reflected light of haematite tubes and filaments.

Images in left column are taken at the surface of the thin section. Images in right column show a series of stacked images using the Z-project function in ImageJ. Stacked images are formed of 8–9 sequential images taken at 2-μm intervals through the thin section. a, Branching haematite filament. b, Stacked image of a. Arrows point to loose coils. c, d, Hollow tube truncated partially at the surface showing both the top (c, red arrow) and bottom surface (d, black arrow) of the tube. e, Twisted haematite filaments emanating from haematite knob at varying angles and depths through the thin section. Inset shows aligned haematite crystals in filament indicative of twisting; arrow points to three tightly aligned plates. f, Stacked image of e with insets of candidate twisted stalks formed of aligned haematite plates; arrows show twist points. Dashed red boxes correspond to areas of insets. g, Filament diameter measurements from NSB (blue) and Løkken-Høydal (orange) jaspers. Filament diameters for NSB: n = 23, s.d. = 2.8 μm, avg = 8.3 μm; for Løkken-Høydal: n = 28, s.d. = 1.9 μm, avg = 9.1 μm. h, Tube diameters n = 40, s.d. = 6.3 μm, avg = 24.9 μm for NSB; n = 40, s.d. = 3.1 μm, avg = 19.5 μm for Løkken-Høydal.

Extended Data Figure 5 Carbonate–apatite and carbonaceous material in the NSB and Løkken jaspers in association with haematite filaments.

a, b, Transmitted light and Raman images of carbonate associated with carbonaceous material inside a filament mat. c, d, Transmitted light and Raman images of carbonate associated with graphite in the NSB jasper associated with a filament. e, Contextual image of the carbonate grain (red box) with haematite filaments. f, Raman spectra of minerals mapped in this figure. g, Contextual image of carbonate grain (red box) with haematite filaments. h, i, Transmitted light and Raman images of haematite filament in Løkken jasper, associated with apatite and carbonate grains. j, k, Transmitted light and Raman images of haematite filament in NSB jasper associated with carbonate grains (green circles). l, Contextual image of apatite associated with carbonaceous material and carbonate within millimetres of filaments in the Løkken jasper. m, n, Transmitted light and Raman images of apatite grain. o, Contextual image of graphite in carbonate spatially occurring within millimetres of haematite filaments and apatite in the NSB. p, q, Transmitted light and Raman images of graphite particle in carbonate. r, Raman spectra of carbonaceous material in Løkken jaspers from b and n. s, Raman spectra of carbonaceous material in NSB jaspers from d and q.

Extended Data Figure 6 Carbonate rosettes.

a, Transmitted light image of calcite rosettes from the NSB. b, c, Transmitted light and Raman images of target area (dashed outline from a). d, Graphite Raman filter map (filter: 1,580 cm−1, width 40 cm−1). Circled pixels are graphite grains. e, Raman spectra of selected graphite particles. f, Average Raman spectra for Raman map in c with inset of haematite Raman filter map (filter: 1,320 cm−1, width 30 cm−1). Circled pixels are haematite grains. g, Stilpnomelane laths overgrowing apatite in the NSB. h, Ankerite rhombohedra envelop a layer of carbonaceous material in the Dales Gorge Member of the Brockman iron formation. i, Ankerite rosettes with quartz inclusions in a carbonaceous material layer. j, Ankerite rosette with quartz core from the Løkken jasper. k, Ankerite rosettes overgrowing haematite filaments (top) and corresponding Raman map (bottom). l, Selected carbon spectra showing diversity of carbon preservation. Non-graphitized carbon is the most abundant variety in the rosettes. m, Average Raman spectra from map.

Extended Data Figure 7 Transmitted light and reflected light images of haematite rosettes.

ad, From NSB; e, from Løkken jaspers. a, Large (60 μm) haematite rosettes (arrows) with cores. b, Haematite rosettes in dense haematite. c, Deformed, thicker-walled (25 μm) haematite rosettes (arrows). d, Concentric haematite rosette. e, Haematite rosettes from Løkken jaspers, same scale bar for all.

Extended Data Figure 8 Variety of graphitic carbons from the NSB.

a, Carbonaceous material Raman spectra, showing the transition between haematite and carbonaceous material. The 1,320 cm−1 haematite peak produces a disordered carbonaceous material spectrum. However, the G-peak position shows that such carbonaceous material is not disordered carbonaceous material like immature kerogen, which peaks around 1,610 cm−1.The Raman spectra are taken from a section (green line) across a carbon particle in the Raman map inset, which has a 330-nm spatial resolution. Note the inclusions of haematite (pink) in the carbonaceous material (red). All other colours and mineral spectra for the Raman map are in Extended Data Fig. 9g. b, Transmitted light image of graphitic carbon particles from PC0822. c, Secondary electron image, looking down a focused ion beam trench through graphitic carbon particles. d, Raman spectral map of boxed area from b. e, Raman spectra for phases in spectral map. f, 1. Disordered graphitic carbon in apatite lath, transmitted light. 2. Disordered graphitic carbon in a granule, transmitted light. 3. Poorly crystalline graphitic carbon vein, transmitted light. 4. Crystalline graphitic carbon in a carbonate rosette, transmitted light.

Extended Data Figure 9 Granules from the NSB and from the Løkken jaspers.

a, Transmitted light image of a granule in the NSB. b, Raman map of the granule in a. c, Carbonaceous material Raman filter map (filter: 1,580 cm−1, width 80 cm−1). d, Calcite Raman filter map (filter: 1,089 cm−1, width 20 cm−1). e, Apatite Raman filter map (filter: 965 cm−1, width 30 cm−1). f, One micrometre spatial resolution Raman scan of part of the granule in a. g, Raman scan (360 nm resolution) of boxed area in f (yellow and white colours are colour combination artefacts). H, Raman scan (500 nm resolution) of a portion of the interior of the Mary Ellen granule in Fig. 4b, showing carbonaceous material coating a carbonate grain, like carbonaceous material coating a carbonate grain in the NSB granule in a. i, Transmitted light image of granule from the Løkken jasper. j, Granule in i, viewed in cross-polarized light. Note the characteristic internal quartz recrystallization, relative to the matrix. k, Raman map of the granule in i. Note that magnetite forms a rim around the granule as in the NSB and Biwabik granules (Fig. 4). l, Microfossil within a granule preserved in haematite. The morphology shows the characteristic terminal knob of iron like the larger tubes preserved in the NSB. m, Carbonaceous material Raman filter map (filter: 1,566 cm−1, width 60 cm−1). n, Average Raman spectra for all Raman maps in this figure. o, Representative carbonaceous material spectra from granules in this figure. p, q, Cross-polarized images of iron-bearing granules from the Mary Ellen, Biwabik (p) and NSB (q) iron formations showing relative quartz recrystallization and magnetite rims.

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Dodd, M., Papineau, D., Grenne, T. et al. Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates. Nature 543, 60–64 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21377

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