Greening of the Earth pushed way back in time

Jul 22, 2013
Greening of the Earth pushed way back in time
This is an interpretive view of Diskagma buttonii with exterior view, left, and cross section. The fossils are the size of match heads and were found connected into bunches by threads in the surface of an ancient soil from South Africa. Credit: Courtesy of Gregory Retallack

Conventional scientific wisdom has it that plants and other creatures have only lived on land for about 500 million years, and that landscapes of the early Earth were as barren as Mars.

A new study, led by geologist Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon, now has presented evidence for life on land that is four times as old—at 2.2 billion years ago and almost half way back to the inception of the planet.

That evidence, which is detailed in the September issue of the journal Precambrian Research, involves fossils the size of match heads and connected into bunches by threads in the surface of an from South Africa. They have been named Diskagma buttonii, meaning "disc-shaped fragments of Andy Button," but it is unsure what the fossils were, the authors say.

"They certainly were not plants or animals, but something rather more simple," said Retallack, professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontological collections at the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The fossils, he added, most resemble modern called Geosiphon, a fungus with a central cavity filled with symbiotic .

"There is independent evidence for cyanobacteria, but not fungi, of the same geological age, and these new fossils set a new and earlier benchmark for the greening of the land," he said. "This gains added significance because hosting the fossils have long been taken as evidence for a marked rise in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere at about 2.4 billion to 2.2 billion years ago, widely called the Great Oxidation Event."

By modern standards, in which Earth's air is now 21 percent oxygen, this early rise was modest, to about 5 percent oxygen, but it represented a rise from vanishingly low earlier in geological time.

Demonstrating that Diskagma are fossils, Retallack said, was a technical triumph because they were too big to be completely seen in a standard microscopic slide and within rock that was too dark to see through in slabs. The samples were imaged using powerful X-rays of a cyclotron, a particle accelerator, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The images enabled a three-dimensional restoration of the fossils' form: odd little hollow urn-shaped structures with a terminal cup and basal attachment tube. "At last we have an idea of what life on land looked like in the Precambrian," Retallack said. "Perhaps with this search image in mind, we can find more and different kinds of fossils in ancient soils."

In their conclusion, the researchers noted that their newly named fossil Diskagma is comparable in morphology and size to Thucomyces lichenoides, a fossil dating to 2.8 billion years ago and also found in South Africa, but its composition, including interior structure and trace elements, is significantly different.

Diskagma also holds some similarities to three living organisms, which were illustrated microscopically in the study: the slime mold Leocarpus fragilis as found in Oregon's Three Sisters Wilderness; the lichen Cladonia ecmocyna gathered near Fishtrap Lake in Montana; and the fungus Geosiphon pyriformis from near Darmstadt, Germany.

The new , the authors concluded, is a promising candidate for the oldest known eukaryote —an organism with cells that contain complex structures, including a nucleus, within membranes.

"Researchers at the UO are collaborating with scientists from around the world to create new knowledge with far-reaching applications," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. "This research by Dr. Retallack and his team opens new doors of inquiry about the origins of ancient life on Earth."

Explore further: Ancient metal workers were not slaves but highly regarded craftsmen

Related Stories

Earliest evidence of life found: 3.49 billion years ago

Jan 04, 2013

(Phys.org)—A group of US researchers studying some of the oldest rocks in the world in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, say they have found the oldest traces of life on Earth, dated at 3.49 billion ...

Feast clue to smell of ancient Earth

Apr 29, 2013

Tiny 1,900 million-year-old fossils from rocks around Lake Superior, Canada, give the first ever snapshot of organisms eating each other and suggest what the ancient Earth would have smelled like.

Multicellularity: A key event in the evolution of life

Jan 16, 2013

(Phys.org)—Multicellularity in cyanobacteria originated before 2.4 billion years ago and is associated with the accumulation of atmospheric oxygen, subsequently enabling the evolution of aerobic life, as ...

Recommended for you

Oldest representative of a weird arthropod group

Aug 28, 2014

Biologists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have assigned a number of 435-million-year-old fossils to a new genus of predatory arthropods. These animals lived in shallow marine habitats ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shabs42
3 / 5 (3) Jul 23, 2013
I guess it makes sense that life would have branched out from the ocean onto land multiple times throughout the Earth's history and not made it in the long term each time. Cool that it could have happened so early.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
1 / 5 (2) Jul 23, 2013
Don't mind Retallack. He is fringe and known for his pushing early land life on erroneous interpretation of cryptic mineral formations. The other fossil doesn't seem to exist either.

The latest genetic modeling puts the mitochondrial endosymbiosis, indicative for surviving eukaryotes, at ~ 1.2 Ga bp [billion years before present] and plasmid endosymbiosis, indicative for algae and plants, at 0.9 Ga bp (Matzke et al, 2013).

Personally I seriously doubt eukaryotes appeared before cyanobacteria, which through a first ever phylogeny could be dated to just before the OE (Oxygenation Event of Earth) at ~ 2.5 Ga bp. Not because a mitochondrial metabolism demands an oxygenated environment. But because Bacteria and Eukaryotes split about the same time, cyanobacteria diverged among the major early bacterial divergence, and the first eukaryote specific sterane trace fossils are ~ 2 Ga bp.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
1 / 5 (2) Jul 23, 2013
[cont] There are many reasons geological and biological why complex multicellular life didn't appear on land until ~ 0.5 Ga bp. Among others, multicellulars aren't much older. Even the most optimistic molecular clocks puts animals at ~ 0.7 Ga bp, plants see above, and the first respective fossils appears some time after that.
Ronan
5 / 5 (2) Jul 24, 2013
Torbjorn: While acknowledging that I know very little about this area of research, and had never heard of either Retallack or Thucomyces until now, the feller didn't at least pull the latter out of a hat; here's a paper from 1977 describing it (unfortunately, I couldn't find a non-paywalled copy): http://www.scienc...74900102