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07-10-2024

Microbes laid the foundation for early life on Earth

We exist, thrive, and ponder upon life, but when it comes to understanding its beginnings, we’ve always found ourselves at a crossroads. Where did we come from? What did the world look like when life first emerged? A recent paper from UC Riverside is now helping us piece together this complex puzzle using microbes.

Early life on Earth

The research project, led by Christopher Tino, a Ph.D. candidate at UCR at the time of the study, and Timothy Lyons, a UCR distinguished professor of biogeochemistry, delves into unknown territories of Earth’s biological history.

The study fuses decades of research, breakthroughs, and data to tell a story about microbes, their evolution, and their impact on our planet.

Many studies have explored signs of early life preserved in ancient rocks, but this paper, weaves together this data with genomic studies of modern organisms and the evolving chemistry of early oceans, continents, and atmosphere.

Microbes and early life forms

The paper reveals how primary life forms – O2-producing bacteria and methane-producing archaea – significantly influenced and were influenced by their surroundings. So, Earth, air, water, and life – they all evolved hand-in-hand, like a natural symphony.

“The central message in all of this is that you can’t view any part of the record in isolation,” said Lyons. “This is one of the first times that research across these fields has been stitched together this comprehensively to uncover an overarching narrative.”

Journey of microbes

The paper also takes us on a journey of early life forms – how they survived, adapted, and finally, flourished. As microbes gained in numbers, they began to shape their world around, most notably by producing oxygen via photosynthesis.

The research explores how microbial life consumed, transformed, and dispersed key nutrients like nitrogen, iron, manganese, sulfur, and methane across Earth. This biological evolution unfolded as Earth’s surface experienced significant changes, including the rise of continents and an increase in atmospheric oxygen.

How did these tiny organisms impact the planet’s development? By understanding their role, we can better appreciate the intricate balance of life and the environment.

Microbes have been pivotal in shaping Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. This highlights their critical influence, inviting us to ponder the profound connections between life and our planet’s history.

Microbes and ancient life

The researchers have also explored the trails of ancient life forms hidden in rocks billions of years old. The researchers used the chemistry of these rocks and the genomes of living relatives to get a comprehensive view of ancient life.

The study challenges the long-held assumption that life forms became dominant soon after their appearance on Earth. The journey from existence to prominence often took hundreds of millions of years.

“Microbes that at first eked out an existence in narrow niches would later have their turn to be the big kids on the block,” said Lyons.

More than just a fossil hunt

While this research feeds our curiosity about our origin, it also paints a broader picture. The study offers insights on how life and environments may respond to climate change, both in the immediate and distant future.

Moreover, the insights derived from this research could prove instrumental in our search for life beyond Earth. If we are ever going to find evidence for life beyond Earth, it will very likely be based on the processes and products of microorganisms, such as methane and O2.

Study significance

Our understanding of life’s early days is exponentially increasing, thanks to the relentless work of scientists like Christopher Tino, Timothy Lyons, and their team. 

“In essence, we are describing Earth’s first flirtations with microbes capable of changing the global environment,” said Lyons. 

“You need to understand the whole picture to fully grasp the who, what, when, and where as microbes graduated from mere existence to having a significant effect on the environment.” 

So, whether you’re pondering about our beginnings or wondering about extraterrestrial life, remember – it all starts with microbes and their remarkable journey. Isn’t it amazing to consider how these tiny life forms have shaped, and continue to shape, the world we live in?

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

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