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Nov 13, 2013 12:12 PM EST

3.5 Billion-Year-Old Ecosystem Discovered in Australia Sedimentary Rock; How It Could Aid Space Exploration

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Discovered in well-preserved sedimentary rock in Australia, a team of scientists has unveiled findings of an ecosystem some 3.5 billions years old, according to a press release.

Samples this old are often extremely hard to find and usually damaged or altered in some way from hydrothermal and tectonic activity. The sample found in the sedimentary rock will help the scientists get a clearer picture of life on Earth in its earliest stages.

The study was lead by Carnegie Institution's Nora Noffke and is published in the journal Astrobiology.

"This work extends the geological record of MISS (microbially induced sedimentary structures) by almost 300 million years," said Noffke, who is also a professor at Old Dominion University (ODU). "Complex mat-forming microbial communities likely existed almost 3.5 billion years ago."

The research team found the sample in the Pilbara district of Western Australia, a geological site known for its wealth of early evolution specimens. The site has produced deposits like stromatolites, created by photosynthetic bacteria, and microfossils of bacteria. MISS had not been known to appear in the region until the recent discovery.

The researchers found the MISS in the region's Dresser Formation and chemical analysis indicated a biological origin for the sample. The Dresser MISS resembled another ecosystem discovered in South Africa by Noffke and her team that was 2.9 billion years old.

MISS is among NASA's Curiosity Mars rover's search targets for the surface of the Red Planet. The team's findings could help future studies of planetary surfaces. Scientists studying the Kepler Telescope's findings are identifying as many potentially habitable planets in the universe as possible and these findings could also aid their search as well.

The researchers asserted bacterial films interacting with the region's shoreline sediments caused the structure to appear.

"The structures give a very clear signal on what the ancient conditions were," Noffke said, "and what the bacteria composing the biofilms were able to do."

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