World’s oldest fossils rock the web

A controversial fossil discovery has whipped up online discussions about alien life.

25 January 2018

Gemma Conroy

Matthew Dodd, UCL

These tubular structures represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. 

There are few bigger questions than those surrounding the origins of life. So when Nature published a study revealing the world’s oldest known microfossils, it quickly became one of the most widely discussed papers of 2017.

The study enlivened discussions around the search for life on Mars and offered clues about when and how life appeared on Earth. But some questioned the validity of the findings.

The paper was the fifth most talked about article in the Nature Index in 2017, with a high Altmetric score of 3,739. It ranked 11th in Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles 2017 list.

Dominic Papineau of University College London and an international team of researchers studied quartz-rich rocks off the coast of Quebec, Canada, and discovered tiny filaments and tubes formed by ancient bacteria.

The researchers dated the microfossils to at least 3,770 million years ago, providing evidence that microbial life appeared much earlier than previously thought. Additionally, the findings support the theory that life emerged in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

The paper was picked up by more than 350 news outlets, including Time, LiveScience and Gizmodo.

Wired recognized its larger, otherworldly significance: “World's oldest fossils unearthed in Canada could help in the hunt for alien life”.

The Sydney Morning Herald cited scientists including biologist Martin Van Kranendonk, who cast doubt on the biological origin of the fossils. He added that crystallization of the rocks in which the fossils were found, meant they were poorly preserved.

The paper was also a hit on social media, with close to 900 tweets and more than 50 Facebook posts.

This article is one in a series about the papers in journals tracked by the Nature Index that gained the most online attention in the past year. Altmetric is part of Digital Science, a consultancy in London operated by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which also has a share in the publisher of the Nature Index.

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