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Early Life on Earth

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

When and where did life begin? What were the conditions on Earth when life began? Prokaryotes were the first forms of life on Earth, and they existed for billions of years before plants and animals appeared. Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. This estimate is based on evidence from the dating of meteorite material, since surface rocks on Earth are not as old as Earth itself. Most rocks available on Earth have undergone geological changes that make them younger than Earth itself. Some meteorites are made of the original material in the solar disk that formed the objects of the solar system, and they have not been altered by the processes that altered rocks on Earth. Thus, the age of meteorites is a good indicator of the age of the formation of Earth. The original estimate of 4.54 billion years was obtained by Clare Patterson in 1956. His meticulous work has since been corroborated by ages determined from other sources, all of which point to an Earth age of about 4.54 billion years.

Early Earth had a very different atmosphere than it does today. Evidence indicates that during the first 2 billion years of Earth’s existence, the atmosphere was anoxic, meaning that there was no oxygen. Therefore, only those organisms that can grow without oxygen— anaerobic organisms—were able to live. Organisms that convert solar energy into chemical energy are called phototrophs. Phototrophic organisms that required an organic source of carbon appeared within one billion years of the formation of Earth. Then, cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, evolved from these simple phototrophs one billion years later. Cyanobacteria are able to use carbon dioxide as a source of carbon. Cyanobacteria (Figure 13.2) began the oxygenation of the atmosphere. The increase in oxygen concentration allowed the evolution of other life forms.

Figure 13.2 This hot spring in Yellowstone National Park flows toward the foreground. Cyanobacteria in the spring are green, and as water flows down the heat gradient, the intensity of the color increases because cell density increases. The water is cooler at the edges of the stream than in the center, causing the edges to appear greener. (credit: Graciela Brelles-Mariño)  

Before the atmosphere became oxygenated, the planet was subjected to strong radiation; thus, the first organisms would have flourished where they were more protected, such as in ocean depths or beneath the surface of Earth. At this time, too, strong volcanic activity was common on Earth, so it is likely that these first organisms—the first prokaryotes—were adapted to very high temperatures. These are not the typical temperate environments in which most life flourishes today; thus, we can conclude that the first organisms that appeared on Earth likely were able to withstand harsh conditions.

Microbial mats may represent the earliest forms of life on Earth, and there is fossil evidence of their presence, starting about 3.5 billion years ago. A microbial mat is a large biofilm, a multi-layered sheet of prokaryotes (Figure 13.3a), including mostly bacteria, but also archaea. Microbial mats are a few centimeters thick, and they typically grow on moist surfaces. Their various types of prokaryotes carry out different metabolic pathways, and for this reason, they reflect various colors. Prokaryotes in a microbial mat are held together by a gummy-like substance that they secrete.

The first microbial mats likely obtained their energy from hydrothermal vents. A hydrothermal vent is a fissure in Earth’s surface that releases geothermally heated water. With the evolution of photosynthesis about 3 billion years ago, some prokaryotes in microbial mats came to use a more widely available energy source—sunlight—whereas others were still dependent on chemicals from hydrothermal vents for food.

Figure 13.3
 (a) This microbial mat grows over a hydrothermal vent in the Pacific Ocean. Chimneys such as the one indicated by the arrow allow gases to escape. (b) This photo shows stromatolites that are nearly 1.5 billion years old, found in Glacier National Park, Montana. 

Fossilized microbial mats represent the earliest record of life on Earth. A stromatolite is a sedimentary structure formed when minerals are precipitated from water by prokaryotes in a microbial mat (Figure 13.3 b). Stromatolites form layered rocks made of carbonate or silicate. Although most stromatolites are artifacts from the past, there are places on Earth where stromatolites are still forming. For example, living stromatolites have been found in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County, California.

Some prokaryotes are able to thrive and grow under conditions that would kill a plant or animal. Bacteria and archaea that grow under extreme conditions are called extremophiles, meaning “lovers of extremes.” Extremophiles have been found in extreme environments of all kinds, including the depths of the oceans, hot springs, the Arctic and the Antarctic, very dry places, deep inside Earth, harsh chemical environments, and high radiation environments. Extremophiles give us a better understanding of prokaryotic diversity and open up the possibility of the discovery of new therapeutic drugs or industrial applications. They have also opened up the possibility of finding life in other places in the solar system, which have harsher environments than those typically found on Earth. Many of these extremophiles cannot survive in moderate environments.


Watch a video ( the Director of the Planetary Science Division of NASA discussing the implications that the existence extremophiles on Earth have on the possibility of finding life on other planets in our solar system, such as Mars.