Almost 14 billion years ago, the Universe is believed to have begun with what is known as the Big Bang. When the solar system settled into its current layout about 4.5 billion years ago, Earth was created as gravity pulled swirling gas and dust in to become the third planet from the Sun. Sometime soon after that, life is believed to have emerged and branched off into lineages that helped it survive.
Exactly when that occurred has been up for debate in the scientific community for years.
But new research suggest it may have occurred earlier than thought.
A new study, led by University College London researchers, builds on evidence of diverse microbial life inside a fist-sized piece of rock from Quebec in Canada.
This rock, found in 2017, dates to around 3.75 billion to 4.28 billion years.
Not everyone agreed with the ageing back then, as it pushed the date for the first signs of life on Earth back by at least 300 million years.
But now, further analysis of the rock has shown even larger and more complex structures than those which were previously identified.
Within the piece is a stem-like structure with parallel branches on one side that are nearly a centimetre long, as well as hundreds of distorted spheres, or ellipsoids, alongside the tubes and filaments.
Geochemist Dominic Papineau said: “This means life could have begun as little as 300 million years after Earth formed. In geological terms, this is quick – about one spin of the Sun around the galaxy.
According to their paper, some of the smaller structures could have conceivably been the product of abiotic reactions.
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However, their new discovery of a “tree-like” stem, is most likely biological in origin.
In addition to the structures, researchers identified mineralised chemicals in the rock that could have been byproducts of different types of metabolic processes.
The chemicals are consistent with energy-extraction processes in the bacteria that would have involved iron and sulfur.
Experts believe it could be an early indication of photosynthesis.
Before the discovery, the earliest fossil evidence of life was found in Western Australia and dated back 3.46 billion years.
However, it came under similar scrutiny.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest fossil evidence of life was found in Western Australia, which dates back 3.46 billion years. However, similar contention exists around whether these fossils were biological in origin.
Experts say the most exciting implication of the new finding is the potential for the distraction of life in the Universe.
If life was able to develop and evolve in the harsh conditions of the very early Earth, then it may be common throughout the cosmos.
The paper says: “This discovery implies that only a few hundred million years are needed for life to evolve to an organized level on a primordial habitable planet.
“We, therefore, conclude that such microbial ecosystems could exist on other planetary surfaces where liquid water interacted with volcanic rocks, and that these oldest microfossils and dubiofossils reported here from the NSB suggest that extraterrestrial life may be more widespread than previously thought.”
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.