UCLA scientists, colleagues substantiate biological origin of earliest fossils

UCLA paleobiologist J. William Schopf and colleagues have substantiated the biological origin of the earliest known cellular fossils, which are 3.5 billion years old. The research is published in the March 7 issue of the journal Nature.

Schopf and a team of scientists at the University of Alabama, Birmingham have devised a new technique using a unique laser-Raman imaging system that enables them to look inside of rocks and determine what they are made of, providing a molecular map.

This new technique is a tremendous breakthrough, and is something we have sought for 25 years, Schopf said. Because Raman spectroscopy is non-intrusive, non-destructive and particularly sensitive to the distinctive carbon signal of organic matter of living systems, it is an ideal technique for studies of ancient microscopic fossils. Raman imagery can show a one-to-one correlation between cell shape and chemistry, and prove whether fossils are biological.

Schopf and his colleagues applied the new technique to ancient fossil microbe-like objects, including the oldest specimens reported from the geological record.

There is no question at all that we have substantiated the biological origin of the oldest fossils now known, Schopf said. We have established that the ancient specimens are made of organic matter just like living microbes, and no non-biological organic matter is known from the geological record. In science, facts always prevail, and the facts here are quite clear.

In addition to being a paleobiologist, Schopf is also a geologist, microbiologist and organic geochemist. Director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, Schopf was awarded the 2000 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science for his book, Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earths Earliest Fossils (Princeton University Press). The annual award is presented for outstanding contributions to the literature of science.

As an honors student at Oberlin College in O

Contact: Stuart Wolpert
University of California - Los Angeles

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