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Key evidence of life's beginnings

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July 27

Researchers have dug up hundreds of fossilized black smoker chimneys in northern China.

They have been analyzing the samples in several laboratories. The discovery is important, because it lends support to the theory that life on the planet developed on the sea floor.

Black smoker chimneys are deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Marine geologists and biologists routinely explore the depths of the ocean in submersibles looking for these chimneys. Scientists have discovered many new species of organisms near active chimneys, including a creature so unusual that it was classified in a phylum of its own.

Because they are home to the most primitive life forms on Earth, fossilized chimneys offer important clues to origins of life on the planet. However, bringing fossilized chimneys found on the ocean's floor to the surface is difficult — they are fragile and easily crumble.

The SLU/Peking chimneys are 1.43 billion years old, the oldest such discovery on record, with previous findings dating back about 500 million years. They're also the largest, with the largest fragment measuring about 3 feet in length, while previous discoveries have been just a few inches long.

During their months of testing and analysis, the team discovered a type of ancient microbe that relied on metal sulfide for nourishment lining the fringes of the chimneys.

It's the first known case where such microbes have been shown to have lived within the ancient fossil chimneys.

This discovery provides tantalizing suggestions that early life may have developed and remained sheltered in deep-sea hydrothermal vents until surface conditions became favorable for organisms to inhabit the land.


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