Posted on March 7, 2002 at 8:00 a.m.
BIRMINGHAM, AL — A team of University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) scientists, along with scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have discovered the organic remains of life that existed on Earth 3.5 billion years ago. Details of the discovery will be published in the March 7 edition of the scientific journal Nature.
“This pushes back by a billion years the prior definitive evidence of the earliest life on earth,” said UAB astrophysicist Thomas J. Wdowiak, Ph.D., a member of the UAB team at the forefront of the development and utilization of instrumentation for addressing the question of the existence of life on other worlds in the solar system, including Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Also on the UAB team are physics professors David G. Agresti, Ph.D., and Anatoliy B. Kudryavtsev, Ph.D. The UCLA team includes Professor J. William Schopf, Ph.D., Department of Earth & Space Sciences and Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics, and his graduate student Andrew D. Czaja. Additionally, Professor Wdowiak is one of 21 scientists on the Athena Team for the Mars Exploration Rovers to be landed on the red planet in 2004. Professor Schopf is an eminent Precambrian paleontologist specializing in paleobiology and is a member of the National Academy of Science and is president of the International Society on the Origin of Life.
Using the unique UAB laser-Raman imaging system, the scientists found that microscopic structures in 3.5 million-year-old rocks from Western Australia are fossil microbial cells. The samples were from the collection of The Natural History Museum, London. Laser-Raman imaging can pick up the molecular vibrations of a particular molecule, including organic forms. The light that bounced of the sample allowed the scientists to map the organic fossil structures by their molecular vibrations, showing them to be very much like cells that you can see under a regular microscope.
“This means that things that have looked like fossils of ancient life are indeed ancient organic remains of microbes, much like the blue-green algae of pond scum,” Wdowiak said. “The organic matter that we detected is to very ancient microbes as coal is to less ancient plants. The main difference is these microbial remains are billions of years old whereas coal is just millions of years old.”
UAB scientists recognized some time ago that an excellent way to detect microbial fossils on earth and other planets would be through the use of laser light because it can be focused to a microscopic spot. The laser-Raman imaging facility employed by the scientists was made possible through NASA-sponsored research at UAB on the growth of crystals in space. The current work on microbial fossils was supported by grants from the JPL/CalTech Astrobiology Center to Professor Schopf at UCLA and from the NASA Exobiology Program to Professor Wdowiak at UAB.
NOTE TO TELEVISION PRODUCERS/EDITORS: B-roll is available of scientists working in the laser-Ramen imaging laboratory. Please contact Andrea Reiber, UAB Broadcast News, at (205) 934-8939 or email@example.com for copy of tape.