When did life first emerge on Earth? Maybe a lot earlier than we thought.

A finding of carbon inside volcanic rock indicates that life could have begun on earth as early as 4.1 billion years ago, when earth was still in a volcanic stage. 

Courtesy of Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
Mark Harrison, a geochemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues have found fossil evidence that life on Earth may have began at least 4.1 billion years ago, some 300 million years earlier than previously thought.

The scientific birthday for life on Earth has likely moved way back following the discovery of carbon fossils from the planet's very early volcanic stage.

The finding potentially stretches the date when life began back by 300 million years to 4.1 billion years ago.

“Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical; finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking,” Mark Harrison, co-author of the research and a professor of geochemistry at UCLA, said in a news release

The fact that life – even if it was no more than “the gooey remains of biotic life or anything more complicated" – could have survived at such an early date contradicts the current theory that the early Earth was hot, dry, and unpleasant, Professor Harrison told the Associated Press.

The discovery not only changes how scientists can think about the formation of Earth, but also presents possibilities for other planets in the universe.

“If life arose relatively quickly on Earth, then it could be common in the universe,” S. Blair Hedges of Temple University told the AP. He said the new finding makes sense and actually fits better into the accelerated timeline required for his own genetic research.

The researchers, led by post-doctoral scholar Elizabeth Bell, found the fossil hints inside zircon minerals. The minerals, which they took from western Australia, “capture and preserve their immediate environment, meaning they can serve as time capsules,” according to the UCLA statement.

Inside one of the zircons, the team found graphite, a pure carbon that usually indicates life. They dated the zircon at 4.1 billion years old, and the graphite is older than that.

Harrison told the AP the type of carbon found is what scientists associate with a long-decayed living organism.

“There is no better case of a primary inclusion in a mineral ever documented, and nobody has offered a plausible alternative explanation for graphite of non-biological origin into a zircon,” Harrison said in the release.

The study’s authors came from the University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford, and it was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Any theories about such early prehistoric life have their risks, and Harrison told the AP that “this is not smoking gun evidence.” He feels “very confident” that they are headed in the right direction though, he said in a news release.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.