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No. 88: Jul-Aug 1993

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Early Life Surprisingly Diverse

The three life forms sketched below are tiny microorganisms, not the worms they appear to be. They are thought to be bacteria, for they closely resemble modern cyanobacteria. What is most important about these fossilized micro-organisms is that they were found in the Apex chert of Western Australia. The Apex chert is designated Early Archean and assigned an age of 3.465 billion years [Four significant figures!]. It is rare to find any fossils at all in rocks this old, but apparently the Apex chert escaped most of the fossil-destroying metamorphism afflicting most Precambrian formations. Even more remarkable is the diversity of these suspected bacteria. J.W. Schopf reports finding no less than eleven different kinds so far--and our planet was only a few hundred million years old at the time the Apex chert was formed.

Tiny microorganisms, thought to be bacteria, closely resembling modern cyanobacteria.
Schopf's discoveries generate at least three questions:

  1. How could life have originated and diversified to such an extent in just a few hundred millions years?

  2. Why after such rapid diversification did these microorganisms remain essentially unchanged for the next 3.465 billion years? Such stasis, common in biology, is puzzling.

  3. If these microorganisms are really cyanobacteria, they would have released oxygen to the atmosphere. Is the standard assumption that the earth's atmosphere lacked oxygen until 2.2 billion years ago correct?

(Schopf, J. William; "Microfossils of the Early Archean Apex Chert: New Evidence of the Antiquity of Life," Science, 260:640, 1993. Also: Pendrick, D.; "Fossils Show Early Diversity of Life," Science News, 143:276, 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #88, JUL-AUG 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:

Quotes

  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987