Feast clue to smell of ancient Earth

Tiny 1,900 million-year-old fossils from rocks around Lake Superior, Canada, give the first ever snapshot of organisms eating each other and suggest what the ancient Earth would have smelled like.

The fossils, preserved in Gunflint chert, capture ancient microbes in the act of feasting on a cyanobacterium-like fossil called Gunflintia – with the perforated sheaths of Gunflintia being the discarded leftovers of this early meal.

A team, led by Dr David Wacey of the University of Western Australia and Bergen University, Norway, and Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University, reports in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the fossil evidence for how this type of feeding on organic matter – called ‘heterotrophy’ – was taking place. They also show that the ancient microbes appeared to prefer to snack on Gunflintia as a ‘tasty morsel’ in preference to another bacterium (Huroniospora).

‘What we call ‘heterotrophy’ is the same thing we do after dinner as the bacteria in our gut break down organic matter,’ said Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, an author of the paper. ‘Whilst there is chemical evidence suggesting that this mode of feeding dates back 3,500 million years, in this study for the first time we identify how it was happening and ‘who was eating who’. In fact we’ve all experienced modern bacteria feeding in this way as that’s where that ‘rotten egg’ whiff of hydrogen sulfide comes from in a blocked drain. So, rather surprisingly, we can say that life on earth 1,900 million years ago would have smelled a lot like rotten eggs.’ Via Feast clue to smell of ancient Earth.

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