Earliest known life forms

Evidence of possibly the oldest forms of life on Earth has been found in hydrothermal vent precipitates.

The earliest known life forms on Earth may be as old as 4.1 billion years old (or Ga) according to biologically fractionated graphite inside a single zircon grain in the Jack Hills range of Australia. The earliest evidence of life found in a stratigraphic unit, not just a single mineral grain, is the 3.7 Ga metasedimentary rocks containing graphite from the Isua Supracrustal Belt in Greenland. The earliest direct known life on land may be stromatolites which have been found in 3.480-billion-year-old geyserite uncovered in the Dresser Formation of the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia. Various microfossils of microorganisms have been found in 3.4 Ga rocks, including 3.465-billion-year-old Apex chert rocks from the same Australian craton region, and in 3.42 Ga hydrothermal vent precipitates from Barberton, South Africa. Much later in the geologic record, likely starting in 1.73 Ga, preserved molecular compounds of biologic origin are indicative of aerobic life. Therefore, the earliest time for the origin of life on Earth is at least 3.5 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.1 billion years ago — not long after the oceans formed 4.5 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago.


Since its emergence, life has persisted in several geological environments. Earth remains the only place in the universe known to harbor life. The Earth's biosphere extends down to at least 10 km (6.2 mi) below the seafloor, and up to 41–77 km (25–48 mi) into the atmosphere, and includes soil, hydrothermal vents, and rock. Further, the biosphere has been found to extend at least 914.4 m (3,000 ft; 0.5682 mi) below the ice of Antarctica, and includes the deepest parts of the ocean. In July 2020, marine biologists reported that aerobic microorganisms (mainly), in "quasi-suspended animation", were found in organically-poor sediments 76.2 m (250 ft) below the seafloor in the South Pacific Gyre (SPG) ("the deadest spot in the ocean"). Microbes have been found in the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the driest places on Earth, and in deep-sea hydrothermal vent environments which can reach temperatures over 400°C. Microbial communities can also survive in cold permafrost conditions, down to -25°C. Under certain test conditions, life forms have been observed to survive in the vacuum of outer space. More recently, studies conducted on the International Space Station found that bacteria could survive in outer space. In February 2023, findings of a "dark microbiome" of unfamiliar microorganisms in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a Mars-like region of planet Earth, were reported.

Geochemical evidence

The age of Earth is about 4.54 billion years; the earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates from at least 3.5 billion years ago according to the stromatolite record. Some computer models suggest life began as early as 4.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of life is indirect in the form of isotopic fractionation. Microorganisms will preferentially use the lighter isotope of an atom to build biomass, as it takes less energy to break the bonds for metabolic processes. Biologic material will often have a composition that is enriched in lighter isotopes compared to the surrounding rock it's found in. Carbon isotopes, expressed scientifically in parts per thousand difference from a standard as δ13C, are frequently used to detect carbon fixation by organisms and assess if purported early life evidence has biological origins. Typically, life will preferentially metabolize the isotopically light 12C isotope instead of the heavier 13C isotope. Biologic material can record this fractionation of carbon.

Zircons in metaconglomerates from the Jack Hills in Australia show carbon isotopic evidence for early life.

The oldest disputed geochemical evidence of life is isotopically light graphite inside a single zircon grain from the Jack Hills in Western Australia. The graphite showed a δ13C signature consistent with biogenic carbon on Earth. Other early evidence of life is found in rocks both from the Akilia Sequence and the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB) in Greenland. These 3.7 Ga metasedimentary rocks also contain graphite or graphite inclusions with carbon isotope signatures that suggest biological fractionation.

The primary issue with isotopic evidence of life is that abiotic processes can fractionate isotopes and produce similar signatures to biotic processes. Reassessment of the Akilia graphite show that metamorphism, Fischer-Tropsch mechanisms in hydrothermal environments, and volcanic processes may be responsible for enrichment lighter carbon isotopes. The ISB's graphite evidence is generally more accepted as biologic in origin. However, the rocks that contain the graphite may have experienced a change in composition from hot fluids, i.e. metasomatism, thus the graphite may have been formed by abiotic chemical reactions.

Metasedimentary rocks from the 3.5 Ga Dresser Formation, which experienced less metamorphism than the sequences in Greenland, contain better preserved geochemical evidence. Carbon isotopes as well as sulfur isotopes found in barite, which are fractionated by microbial metabolisms during sulfate reduction, are consistent with biological processes. However, the Dresser formation was deposited in an active volcanic and hydrothermal environment, and abiotic processes could still be responsible for these fractionations. Many of these findings are supplemented by direct evidence, typically by the presence of microfossils, however.

Fossil evidence

Fossils are direct evidence of life. They are often supplemented by geochemical evidence in the search for the earliest life. The fossil record does not extend as far back as the geochemical record due to metamorphic processes that erase fossils from geologic units.


Stromatolites are laminated sedimentary structures created by photosynthetic organisms as they establish a microbial mat on a sediment surface. An important distinction for biogenicity is their convex-up structures and wavy laminations, which are typical of microbial communities who build preferentially toward the sun. A disputed report of stromatolites is from the 3.7 Ga Isua metasediments that show convex-up, conical, and domical morphologies. Further mineralogical analysis disagrees with the initial findings of internal convex-up laminae, a critical criteria for stromatolite identification, suggesting that the structures may be deformation features (i.e. boudins) caused by extensional tectonics in the Isua Supracrustal Belt.

Stromatolite fossil showing convex-up structures.

The earliest direct evidence of life are stromatolites found in 3.48 billion-year-old chert in the Dresser formation of the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia. Several features in these fossils are difficult to explain with abiotic processes, for example, the thickening of laminae over flexure crests that is expected from more sunlight. Sulfur isotopes from barite veins in the stromatolites also favor a biologic origin. However, while most scientists accept their biogenicity, abiotic explanations for these fossils cannot be fully discarded due to their hydrothermal depositional environment and debated geochemical evidence.

Most archean stromatolites older than 3.0 Ga are found in Australia or South Africa. Stratiform stromatolites from the Pilbara Craton have been identified in the 3.47 Ga Mount Ada Basalt. Barberton, South Africa hosts stratiform stromatolites in the 3.46 Hooggenoeg, 3.42 Kromberg and 3.33 Ga Mendon Formations of the Onverwacht Group. The 3.43 Ga Strelley Pool Formation in Western Australia hosts stromatolites that demonstrate vertical and horizontal changes that may demonstrate microbial communities responding to transient environmental conditions. Thus, it is likely anoxygenic or oxygenic photosynthesis has been occurring since at least 3.43 Ga Strelley Pool Formation.


Claims of the earliest life using fossilized microorganisms (microfossils) are from hydrothermal vent precipitates from an ancient sea-bed in the Nuvvuagittuq Belt of Quebec, Canada. These may be as old as 4.28 billion years, which would make it the oldest evidence of life on Earth, suggesting "an almost instantaneous emergence of life" after ocean formation 4.41 billion years ago. These findings may be better explained by abiotic processes: for example, silica-rich waters, "chemical gardens," circulating hydrothermal fluids, and volcanic ejecta can produce morphologies similar to those presented in Nuvvuagittuq.

Archaea (prokaryotic microbes) were first found in extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents.

The 3.48 Ga Dresser formation hosts microfossils of prokaryotic filaments in silica veins, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, but their origins may be volcanic. 3.465-billion-year-old Australian Apex chert rocks may once have contained microorganisms, although the validity of these findings has been contested. "Putative filamentous microfossils", possibly of methanogens and/or methanotrophs, that lived about 3.42-billion-year-old in "a paleo-subseafloor hydrothermal vein system of the Barberton greenstone belt, have been identified in South Africa." A diverse set of microfossil morphologies have been found in the 3.43 Ga Strelley Pool Formation including spheroid, lenticular, and film-like microstructures. Their biogenicity are strengthened by their observed chemical preservation. The early lithification of these structures allowed important chemical tracers, such as the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, to be retained at levels higher than is typical in older, metamorphosed rock units.

Molecular Biomarkers

Biomarkers are compounds of biologic origin found in the geologic record that can be linked to past life. Although they aren't preserved until the late Archean, they are important indicators of early photosynthetic life. Lipids are particularly useful biomarkers because they can survive for long periods of geologic time and reconstruct past environments.

Lipids are commonly used in geologic studies to find evidence of oxygenic photosynthesis.

Fossilized lipids were reported in 2.7 Ga laminated shales from the Pilbara Craton and the 2.67 Ga Kaapvaal Craton in South Africa. However, the age of these biomarkers and whether their deposition was synchronous with their host rocks were debated, and further work showed that the lipids were contaminants. The oldest "clearly indigenous" biomarkers are from the 1.64 Ga Barney Creek Formation in the McArthur Basin in Northern Australia, but hydrocarbons from the 1.73 Ga Wollogorang Formation in the same basin have also been detected.

Other indigenous biomarkers can be dated to the Mesoproterozoic era (1.6-1.0 Ga). The 1.4 Ga Hongshuizhuang Formation in the North China Craton contains hydrocarbons in shales that were likely sourced from prokaryotes. Biomarkers were found in siltstones from the 1.38 Ga Roper Group of the McArthur Basin. Hydrocarbons possibly derived from bacteria and algae were reported in 1.37 Ga Xiamaling Formation of the NCC. The 1.1 Ga Atar/El Mreïti Group in the Taoudeni Basin, Mauritania show indigenous biomarkers in black shales.

Genomic evidence

By comparing the genomes of modern organisms (in the domains Bacteria and Archaea), it is evident that there was a last universal common ancestor (LUCA). LUCA is not thought to be the first life on Earth, but rather the only type of organism of its time to still have living descendants. In 2016, M. C. Weiss and colleagues proposed a minimal set of genes that each occurred in at least two groups of Bacteria and two groups of Archaea. They argued that such a distribution of genes would be unlikely to arise by horizontal gene transfer, and so any such genes must have derived from the LUCA. A molecular clock model suggests that the LUCA may have lived 4.477—4.519 billion years ago, within the Hadean eon.

Further work on early life

Extraterrestrial origin for early life?

The theory of panspermia speculates that life on Earth may have come from biological matter carried by space dust or meteorites.

While current geochemical evidence dates the origin of life to possibly as early as 4.1 Ga, and fossil evidence shows life at 3.5 Ga, some researchers speculate that life may have started nearly 4.5 billion years ago. According to biologist Stephen Blair Hedges, "If life arose relatively quickly on Earth ... then it could be common in the universe." The possibility that terrestrial life forms may have been seeded from outer space has been considered. In January 2018, a study found that 4.5 billion-year-old meteorites found on Earth contained liquid water along with prebiotic complex organic substances that may be ingredients for life.

Early life on land

As for life on land, in 2019 scientists reported the discovery of a fossilized fungus, named Ourasphaira giraldae, in the Canadian Arctic, that may have grown on land a billion years ago, well before plants are thought to have been living on land. The earliest life on land may have been bacteria 3.22 billion years ago. Evidence of microbial life on land may have been found in 3.48 billion-year-old geyserite in the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia.


Earliest known life forms

See also

This page was last updated at 2024-01-01 21:10 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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