Scientists may have discovered the earliest direct evidence of life on Earth

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In addition to exploring the inner workings and history of the oldest fossilized specimens ever found, the study also provides insights into how organisms could have emerged and lived on an oxygen-free planet in the earliest moments of life on Earth. Critics argued they are just odd minerals that only look like biological specimens.

For the study, the scientists used cutting-edge technology called secondary ion-mass spectroscopy (SIMS), which reveals the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 isotopes.

The research was led by a paleobiologist William Schopf from the University of California-Los Angeles and a geoscientist John Valley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professof Schopf analysed the carbon composition of the ancient rock to find out the ratios of different carbon isotopes - that is, different types of carbon.

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The microorganisms, from Western Australia, are 3.465 billion-years-old. "If they're not biological there is no reason for such a correlation". "Their C-13-to-C-12 ratios are characteristic of biology and metabolic function". Based on this data, the researchers were also able to assign identities and likely physiological behaviours to the remains locked inside the rock, Valley states.

Some of the microbial life inside is believed to have relied on the Sun to produce energy, while others consumed methane, which was a big part of Earth's early atmosphere before oxygen.

It took Valley's team almost ten years to develop the processes to sift through the microfossils, fossils this old and unique have never been subjected to SIMS investigation before.

While the study suggests the presence of primitive life forms throughout the universe, Schopf said the presence of more advanced life is less certain but certainly possible. The results were proof that the fossils of microbes and bacteria in the rock are as old as the rock itself.

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Analysing the oldest-known fossil microorganisms which indicate that life on Earth began as far back as 3.5 million-years-ago, scientists have said that alien life in the universe may be much more common than thought. This pushed the origins of life back more than a billion years, from 540 million to 1.8 billion years ago. "This study was 10 times more time-consuming and more hard than I first imagined, but it came to fruition because of many dedicated people who have been excited about this since day one ..."

Researchers hope their technique can one day be applied to other microfossils, perhaps even those that come from cosmic bodies beyond Earth.

One of the paper's co-authors is Anatoliy Kudryavtsev, a senior scientist at UCLA's Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, of which Schopf is director. Both are beaten out by stromatolites in Greenland that have been dated to 3.7 billion years, while a batch of Canadian fossils may have celebrated a staggering 4.3 billion birthdays. WiscSIMS is supported by the National Science Foundation (EAR-1355590) and UW-Madison.

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