Scientists say life on Earth could've started a billion years earlier than we thought

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Feb 19, 2015, 3:52 PM EST (Updated)

Though much of the focus these days is on finding life outside of our little planet, scientists might’ve just stumbled upon a massive discovery about good ol’ planet Earth.

A new study published at the University of Washington looks to challenge the largely accepted theory that life on Earth developed around 2 billion years ago — and posits that life could’ve started teeming around a full 1.2 billion years earlier. The reason? Living organisms use nitrogen, and new research indicates that something started using it up 1.2 billion years before we’d originally thought.

The team reached that conclusion by analyzing 52 samples of extremely old rocks (2.7-3.2 billion years) from Australia and South Africa. As Popular Science notes, the rocks are so old they actually formed before oxygen appeared in our atmosphere — and they hold a ton of fascinating intel on what the world might’ve looked like all that time ago.

Those millennia-old rocks also hold intel on how much nitrogen was kicking around at the time, and the team studied the nitrogen ratio patterns on the rocks. Their findings indicate the rocks of that time fit with what you’d see with single-celled organisms, meaning that life could’ve been crawling around a full billion years earlier than we’d thought. The team theorizes the mythical microbes could have originated in the ocean.

The paper’s co-author Roger Buick said the nitrogen findings could be a huge finding, albeit as indirect evidence to the fact:

“We’ll never find any direct evidence of land scum one cell thick, but this might be giving us indirect evidence that the land was inhabited. Microbes could have crawled out of the ocean and lived in a slime layer on the rocks on land, even before 3.2 billion years ago.”

Check out the Nature report here and let us know what you think about the findings.

(Via Popular Science, Nature)