Press Release

Multinational team of scientists finds early life in volcanic lava

By SpaceRef Editor
April 26, 2004
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Multinational team of scientists finds early life in volcanic lava

Scientists from the United States, Norway, Canada, and South Africa have
identified what is believed to be evidence of one of Earth’s earliest forms of
life, a finding that could factor heavily into discussions of the origins of life.

The team, which includes a scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at
the University of California, San Diego, found microscopic life colonized in
ancient volcanic lava dating nearly 3.5 billion years old, during a time known
as the Archean.

The findings are reported in the April 23 issue of the journal Science. The team
includes Harald Furnes and Neil Banerjee of the University of Bergen, Norway;
Karlis Muehlenbachs of the University of Alberta, Canada; Hubert Staudigel of
Scripps Institution; and Maarten de Wit of the University of Cape Town, South

In 2001, Staudigel and his colleagues documented how microscopic organisms,
smaller than the width of a human hair, are able to eat their way into volcanic
rock to form long, worm-like tubes (see

The new study, which describes a similar finding in the Barberton Greenstone
Belt, a location several hundred miles east of Johannesburg, South Africa, near
Swaziland, proves that microbial processes that can be seen today also occurred
during the earliest stages of the planet’s history at the roots of life’s
origins. The Barberton Greenstone Belt was formed in an underwater setting in
the planet’s oceanic crust but is now uplifted and accessible to land-based
field work. Until the team’s expedition last June, this area had not been
extensively explored for signs of early life.

"Our evidence is amongst the oldest evidence for life found so far," said
Staudigel, a research geophysicist at the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of
Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps. "This area within the oceanic crust
is a favorable place for the origin of life. It offers relatively easy access to
seawater and volcanic environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal systems —
including a wide range of catalysts that are required in the origin of life."

Staudigel also argues that the region’s previous geographic position in a
submarine environment below the ocean floor may have provided protection from
the life-stunting effects of meteorites that bombarded Earth’s surface billions
of years ago.

"This finding may allow us to cross-reference the visual clues of these
microbial fossils with their chemical fingerprints," said Staudigel. "They may
help us understand biological and chemical processes that occurred 3.5 billion
years ago, which is only one billion years after the accretion of Earth from the
solar nebula."

The scientists identified the microbes in an area of Barberton with ample
volcanic eruptions called "pillow lavas." These are formed when undersea
volcanoes erupt and spew lava, which cools quickly to form tube-like structures.
Over time these tubes harden and, when dissected by erosion, form pillow-like

"When the planet was three-and-a-half billion years old there were no plants or
animals to eat," said Staudigel. "So to make a living these microbes adapted to
eating volcanic rock. That’s all there was."

The scientists now plan to carefully analyze the microbes with sensitive
instruments to characterize their ancient activities within the pillow lava.

The study was funded by the Norwegian Research Council, the National Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the U.S. National Science
Foundation, the Agouron Institute and the National Research Foundation of South

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SpaceRef staff editor.