Life on Earth originated 300 million years earlier than we thought, new evidence suggests
Researchers have found evidence of ancient microorganisms that lived in what is now Western Australia at least 4.1 billion years ago. If confirmed, the discovery suggests that life originated on Earth 300 million years earlier than previously thought.
This would mean that life originated not that long after the formation of our planet - just over 4 million years to be precise - which might sound like a really long time, but it's a proverbial blink of an eye in the history of Earth. It would also change our understanding of what it takes for life to form here, and, excitingly, elsewhere in the Universe.
"Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” said one of the lead researchers, Mark Harrison, a geochemist from the University of California, Los Angeles. "With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly."
The new research also suggests that life existed on Earth prior to the massive bombardment of the inner Solar System - a period of intense asteroid activity which formed the Moon’s large craters around 3.9 billion years ago.
It was previously believed that life didn't appear on Earth until after this event, around 3.8 billion years ago. And it was long assumed that before the bombardment the planet was a dry and desolate place that was incapable of sustaining life.
But a growing body of research, including this latest discovery, suggests that this wasn't the case. "The early Earth certainly wasn't a hellish, dry, boiling planet; we see absolutely no evidence for that," said Harrison. "The planet was probably much more like it is today than previously thought."
"Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical; finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking," he added.