Microorganisms were the first forms of life on our planet. The clues are written in 3.5 billion-year-old rocks by geochemical and morphological traces, such as chemical compounds or structures that these organisms left behind. However, it is still not clear when and where life originated on Earth and when a diversity of species developed in these early microbial communities. Evidence is scarce and often disputed. Now, researchers led by the University of Göttingen and Linnӕus University in Sweden have uncovered key findings about the earliest forms of life. In rock samples from South Africa, they found evidence dating to around 3.42 billion years ago of an unprecedentedly diverse carbon cycle involving various microorganisms. This research shows that complex microbial communities already existed in the ecosystems during the Palaeoarchaean period. The results were published in the journal Precambrian Research.
First author Dr Manuel Reinhardt, from Göttingen University’s Geosciences Centre, adds: “We didn’t expect to find traces of so many microbial metabolic processes. It was like the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.” The study provides a rare glimpse into the Earth’s early ecosystems. “Our findings significantly advance the understanding of ancient microbial ecosystems and open up new avenues for research in the field of palaeobiology.”