Washington: Life could have flourished on Earth 3.2 billion years ago, suggests a new study that pushes back the origin of life on our planet a further billion years.
The ability to use atmospheric nitrogen to support more widespread life was thought to have appeared roughly 2 billion years ago, researchers said.
Now research from the University of Washington looking at some of the planet's oldest rocks has found evidence that 3.2 billion years ago, life was already pulling nitrogen out of the air and converting it into a form that could support larger communities.
"People always had the idea that the really ancient biosphere was just tenuously clinging on to this inhospitable planet, and it wasn't until the emergence of nitrogen fixation that suddenly the biosphere became large and robust and diverse," said co-author Roger Buick, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences.
"Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early Earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere," said Buick.
The authors analysed 52 samples ranging in age from 2.75 to 3.2 billion years old, collected in South Africa and northwestern Australia. These are some of the oldest and best-preserved rocks on the planet.
The rocks were formed from sediment deposited on continental margins, so are free of chemical irregularities that would occur near a subsea volcano.
They also formed before the atmosphere gained oxygen, roughly 2.3 to 2.4 billion years ago, and so preserve chemical clues that have disappeared in modern rocks.
Even the oldest samples, 3.2 billion years old - three-quarters of the way back to the birth of the planet - showed chemical evidence that life was pulling nitrogen out of the air, researchers said.
The ratio of heavier to lighter nitrogen atoms fits the pattern of nitrogen-fixing enzymes contained in single-celled organisms, and does not match any chemical reactions that occur in the absence of life.
"Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating," said lead author Eva Stueken, who did the work as part of her UW doctoral research.
"It suggests that these really complicated enzymes apparently formed really early, so maybe it's not so difficult for these enzymes to evolve," said Stueken.
Genetic analysis of nitrogen-fixing enzymes have placed their origin at between 1.5 and 2.2 billion years ago.
"This is hard evidence that pushes it back a further billion years," Buick said.
Fixing nitrogen means breaking a tenacious triple bond that holds nitrogen atoms in pairs in the atmosphere and joining a single nitrogen to a molecule that is easier for living things to use.
The study was published in the journal Nature.