UCLA and UW-Madison researchers confirm oldest fossils ever found in 3.5 billion-year-old rock

MADISON, Wis. - Researchers from UCLA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study on Monday revealing a 3.5 billion-year-old piece of rock discovered in Western Australia contains the oldest fossils ever found, showing the earliest evidence on life on Earth. 

J. William Schopf, a professor of paleobiology at UCLA and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, and John W. Valley, a professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, led the study with the help of new technology and scientific expertise developed in the UW-Madison WiscSIMS Laboratory. 

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlines 11 microbial specimens, linking their forms to chemical signs characteristic of life, and suggests how the bacteria and microbes may have survived in the planet’s oxygen-free environment. Valley first described these microfossils in 1993 in a journal, Science, and Schopf, later published further evidence in 2002, according to the news release.

The microfossils, characterized by their inability to be seen by the naked eye, were found in 1982 from a rock deposit in Western Australia, which is reported to be one of the few places unharmed by geological processes, providing preserved evidence of early Earth.

The new study claims the microfossils are biological, an idea previously disputed. Valley says this latest study settles any doubts. 

Researchers used a secondary ion mass spectrometer at UW-Madison, one of few of its kind in the world. According to the news release, this is the first time fossils this old and rare underwent SIMS analysis. It is said Valley’s team spent nearly 10 years developing these processes for analyzing the microfossils. 

The study reveals this complex group of microfossils includes phototrophic bacteria that used the sun to produce energy and other bacteria that produced methane, an important gas before oxygen was present in Earth’s atmosphere. 

According to Schopf, studies like this may support the idea of life existing throughout the universe.
Because of this evidence showing microbes present nearly 3.5 billion years ago "… life had to have begun substantially earlier - nobody knows how much earlier - and confirms it is not difficult for primitive life to form and to evolve into more advanced microorganisms," Schopf said in the news release.

"People are really interested in when life on Earth first emerged," Valley said. "This study was 10 times more time-consuming and more difficult than I first imagined, but it came to fruition because of many dedicated people who have been excited about this since day one ... I think a lot more microfossil analyses will be made on samples of Earth and possibly from other planetary bodies."

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