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History   The 3,000 million-year-old Australian rock

Life in Earth's soils may be older than believed

Australia soilWay before trees or lichens evolved, soils on Earth were alive, as revealed by a close examination of microfossils in the desert of northwestern Australia.

These tiny fossils require a microscope to see and probably represent whole organisms. The 3,000 million-year-old Australian rocks have long been thought to be of marine origin.

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READ MORE Life on Earth likely started 4.1 billion years ago

However, "a closer look at the dusty salt minerals of the rocks suggests they had to have experienced evaporation on land," said UO paleontologist Gregory Retallack, lead author on a study in the December issue of the international journal Gondwana Research.

Other mineral and chemical tracers found in the rocks also required weathering in soils of the distant geological past, he said.

"Life was not only present but thriving in soils of the early Earth about two thirds of the way back to its formation from the solar nebula," Retallack said. The origin of the solar system - and Earth - occurred some 4.6 billion years ago.

The study outlines a microbiome of at least five different kinds of microfossils recognized from their size, shape and isotopic compositions.

The largest and most distinctive microfossils are spindle-shaped hollow structures of mold-like actinobacteria, still a mainly terrestrial group of decomposers that are responsible for the characteristic earthy smell of garden soil.

Other sphere-shaped fossils are similar to purple sulfur bacteria, which photosynthesize organic compounds in the absence of oxygen while leaving abundant sulfate minerals in the soil.

"With cell densities of over 1,000 per square millimeter and a diversity of producers and consumers, these microfossils represent a functioning terrestrial ecosystem, not just a few stray cells," said Retallack, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and director of paleontology collections at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

"They are evidence that life in soils was critical to the cycles of carbon, phosphorus, sulfur and nitrogen very early in the history of the planet."

The new discoveries by the UO team are potentially controversial because many scientists have long pointed to stromatolites, a life form that emerged 3.7 billion years ago, and other marine life as evidence of life that evolved in the sea and found their way into intertidal rock formations.




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