Among the oldest known rocks are metamorphosed pillow basalts on Nuvvuagittuk Island in Quebec on the east side of Hudson Bay, Canada. They contain red and orange, iron-rich sediments probably formed by hydrothermal activity associated with sea water passing through hot basalts. The ironstones are made of silica in the form of jasper (SiO2) and carbonates that are coloured by hematite (Fe2O3). This rock sequence is cut by silica-rich intrusive igneous rocks dated between 3750 and 3775 Ma: a minimum, Eoarchaean age for the sequence. This is roughly the same as the age of the famous Isua supracrustal rocks of West Greenland, but dating of the basalts using the samarium–neodymium method suggested that they formed in the Hadean about 4300 Ma ago, which would make them by far the oldest known rocks. However, that date clashes with a zircon U-Pb age of 3780 Ma for associated metasedimentary mica schists: a still ‘live’ controversy. The ironstones have been suggested to contain signs of life, in the form of minute tubes and filaments similar to those formed in modern hydrothermal vents by iron-oxidising bacteria (see: Earliest hydrothermal vent and evidence for life, March 2017). If that can be proven this would push back the age of the earliest known life by at least 300 Ma and maybe far more if the Hadean Sm-Nd age is confirmed
The Nuvvuagittuk material has recently been re-examined by its original discoverers using a variety of advanced microscope techniques (Papineau, D. et al 2022. Metabolically diverse primordial microbial communities in Earth’s oldest seafloor-hydrothermal jasper. Science Advances, v. 8, article 2296; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm2296.). The most revealing of these involve two very-high resolution imaging systems: X-ray micro-tomography and electron microscopy armed with a focused ion beam that repeatedly shaves away 200 nm of rock from a sample. Both build up highly detailed 3-D images of any minute structures within a sample. The techniques revealed details of twisted filaments, tubes, knob-like and branching structures up to a centimetre long. While the first three could possibly have some inorganic origin, a ‘comb-like’ branch, likened to a moth’s antenna, has never been known to have formed by chemical reactions alone.
All the structures are formed from hematite within a silica or carbonate (mainly calcite CaCO3 and ankerite Ca(Fe,Mg,Mn)(CO3)2) matrix. Some of the hematite (dominated by Fe3+) contains significant amounts of reduced Fe2+. The structures also contain tiny grains of graphite (C), phosphate (apatite Ca5(PO4)3(F,Cl,OH)) and various metal (Mn, Co, Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd) sulfides. The presence of graphite obviously suggests – but does not prove – a biological origin. However, all Phanerozoic jaspers formed from hydrothermal fluids contain undisputed organic material and appear little different from these ancient examples. Filaments, tubes and comb-like structures are displayed by various iron-oxidising bacteria found living in modern sea-floor hydrothermal vent systems. The sulfur isotopes in metal sulfides suggest their formation in an environment with vanishingly low oxygen content. Carbon isotopes in graphite are more enriched in light 12C relative to 13C than those in associated carbonates, a feature produced by living organic processes today. Patterns in plots of rare-earth elements (REE) from the Nuvvuagittuk jaspers are similar to those from modern examples and suggest high-temperature interactions between sea water and basaltic igneous rocks.
It is clear from the paper just how comprehensively the team of authors have considered and tested various biotic and abiotic options for the origin of the features found in the Nuvvuagittuk jasper samples. They conclude that they probably do represent an ancient microbial ecosystem associated with sea-floor hydrothermal vents; a now widely supported scenario for the origin of life on Earth. But what metabolic processes did the Nuvvuagittuk microbes use? Their intimate association with Fe3+ oxides that contain some reduced Fe2+ suggests that they exploited chemical ‘energy’ from oxidation reactions that acted on Fe2+ dissolved in hydrothermal fluids. This would have been impossible by inorganic means because of the very low oxygen content of seawater shown by the sulfur isotopes in associated sulfide minerals. Iron oxidation and precipitation of iron oxide by organic processes must have involved dissociation of water to yield the necessary oxygen and loss of electrons from available Fe2+, a process used by modern deep-water bacteria that depends on the presence of nitrates. That can power the metabolism of inorganic carbon dissolved in water as, for instance, bicarbonate ions and water to yield cell-building carbohydrates: a form of autotrophy. There may have been other metabolic routes, such as reducing dissolved sulfate ions to sulfur, as suggested by the association of metal sulfides. If the sea floor was shallow enough to be lit CO2 and water may have been converted to carbohydrates by a form of photosynthesis that does not release oxygen, analogous to modern purple bacteria.
There may have been considerable biodiversity in the Nuvvuagittuk ecosystem. So despite its vast age – it may have been active only 300 Ma after the Earth formed, if the oldest date is verified – it has to be remembered that a great many earlier evolutionary steps, both inorganic and organic, must have been accomplished to have allowed these organisms to exist. The materials do not signify the origin of life, but life that was chemically extremely sophisticated: far more so than anything attempted so far in laboratories to figure out the tricks performed by natural inorganic systems. DNA and RNA alone are quite a challenge!
See also: Video by authors of the paper (YouTube) Diverse life forms may have evolved earlier than previously thought. ScienceDaily, 13