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Bacteria existed on Earth long before oxygen, scientists find

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

New research in Australia has discovered fossils of bacteria that are the oldest yet discovered on Earth. The specimens predate the formation of oxygen on our planet. Uncovered in northwest Australia's Pilbara region are thought to be nearly 3.5 billion years old, created by bacteria which existed just one billion years after the Earth formed.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Old Dominion University's Nora Noffke, one of the researchers who worked on the project reports that the discovery could help with the Mars rover Curiosity's searches for traces of life on the Red Planet.

The bacteria traces "are the oldest fossils ever described. Those are our oldest ancestors," Noffke told the Washington Post. The fossils are vein-like imprints on the surfaces of sandstone, thought to have been sculpted by once-living organisms interacting with sediment.

Thick mats of bacteria are believed to have trapped and then glued together sand particles beneath them and protected them from erosion. The process continues in the world today. 

Sand stuck in this way gradually turns into rock with its particular texture shaped by the living organism that once covered it.

The geological specimens in Western Australia's Pilbara region are some of the oldest anywhere found on earth. Once shoreline, the sedimentary rocks in the area piled up billions of years ago and are now exposed for examination.

Professor Noffke says that while scientists have found much older rocks, she told U.S. News that those rocks have eroded to the point traces of life are all but impossible to find.

"I can confidently say the structures we're working on cannot be found on older rocks - until now, there has been nothing that is this well preserved," she said.

"There are some that are much older, but they experience metamorphosis - anything that's on them has been overprinted and it's difficult to reconstruct what was there."

The patterns found by Professor Noffke and her teams are ridges which crisscross the rocks like strands in a spider's web, hinting that primitive bacteria were linked in large networks. The microbes may have lived in the equivalent of microbial cities hosting different kinds of bacteria all communicating via chemical signals, the Washington Post reports.

However - it must be noted that Australian rocks have deceived researchers in the past. Rippling layers found in some from the Strelley Pool, also in Western Australia, were claimed in 1980 to be the work of bacteria. Subsequent research showed the patterns could be formed by natural non-organic processes.

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