More than 3 billion years ago, Earth was a hostile, volatile place, its air oxygen-less and its climate unpredictable.
And yet, life thrived.
That’s according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature, which analyzed 52 ancient rock samples and found that organisms capable of pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it into a usable form first appeared around 3.2 billion years ago — about a billion years earlier than previous estimates.
Though very early, very basic forms of life are thought to have existed even earlier than the 3.2 billion mark, the new findings push back scientists’ understanding of when life was widespread.
The secret ingredient is a type of nitrogen found in the ancient rock samples. Early life forms may have been able to live without oxygen — which didn’t appear in Earth’s atmosphere until what scientists call a “great oxygenation event” 2.3 billion years ago — but they required nitrogen to build genes and for other essential life processes. And unfortunately for the planet’s ancient organisms, the kind of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere exists in tightly bonded pairs that are useless when it comes to chemical reactions.
Non-biological processes, such as lightning discharge, may have converted bonded atmospheric nitrogen in small quantities, but not frequently enough to sustain large populations of living cells. For that, life on Earth needed to find a way to acquire its own nitrogen — an enzyme that could pull the compound from the atmosphere and convert it to its “fixed” or usable form.
Evidence of such an enzyme is what researchers found in their samples, which were sourced from some of Earth’s oldest rock in South Africa and Australia and range from about 2.8 billion to 3.2 billion years old. The rocks contain a chemical signature of the nitrogen-fixing process, offering “hard evidence” that the conditions for life to flourish have existed 50 percent longer than scientists once believed, according to co-author Roger Buick.
“People always had the idea that the really ancient biosphere was just tenuously clinging on to this inhospitable planet, and it wasn’t until the emergence of nitrogen fixation that suddenly the biosphere become large and robust and diverse,” Buick, a professor at the University of Washington, said in a university press release. “Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early Earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere.”
Buick said these early organisms could have crawled out of the ocean and lived on land in a single layer of cells, coating the planet’s rocks with a thin film of slime and quietly exhaling small amounts of oxygen. The presence of the chemical signature is indirect evidence of this hypothesis, but it’s firm — the kind of chemical reaction preserved in the rocks can only happen in the presence of life.
Lead author Eva Stueken, also a University of Washington professor, said that the findings suggest it may be easier for complex biological processes to develop than originally thought.
“Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating,” she said. “It suggests that these really complicated enzymes apparently formed really early, so maybe it’s not so difficult for these enzymes to evolve.”