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New research questions evidence for earliest life on earth

WASHINGTON - New geological and geochemical data call into question recent claims for fossil life on Earth greater than 3.8 billion years ago, say researchers from The George Washington University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History in the May 24 issue of the journal Science. Such claims have been based on interpreting the sensitive biochemical behaviour of carbon, the principal element of life, and its relationship with the rocks in which the carbon is found.

The rocks examined are located on Akilia, a remote island off the coast of southwest Greenland, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) south of Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland. Earlier reports claimed that a peculiar green-and-white layered rock found there, formed as a Banded Iron Formation (BIF), a type of sediment commonly preserved in very ancient ocean basins. Tiny particles of simple organisms, such as bacteria, living in the ocean were thought to become trapped in the sediments at the time of formation. With time, heat, and pressure, the organisms were converted into graphite, a type of carbon, thus erasing any "shapes" that could be recognized as fossils. While fossil shapes cannot be seen, the process of metabolism in living organisms separates different weights of carbon, leaving what has been thought to be a unique chemical "fingerprint" of past life.

However, the article by Christopher Fedo, from The George Washington University's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Martin Whitehouse, at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, reports that the story about the rocks is much more complicated, and the carbon isotopic basis for interpreting life is questionable. In a detailed study of the rocks on Akilia, the authors demonstrate that much of the fine layering in the banded rocks formed as a result of great stresses that lasted discontinuously for about two billion years, and not as thin layers of sediment deposited on a long vanished sea floor as had been suggeste
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Contact: Bob Ludwig
bludwig@gwu.edu
202-994-3566
George Washington University
23-May-2002


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