Organic-walled microfossils in 3.2-billion-year-old shallow-marine siliciclastic deposits

Nature. 2010 Feb 18;463(7283):934-8. doi: 10.1038/nature08793. Epub 2010 Feb 7.


Although the notion of an early origin and diversification of life on Earth during the Archaean eon has received increasing support in geochemical, sedimentological and palaeontological evidence, ambiguities and controversies persist regarding the biogenicity and syngeneity of the record older than Late Archaean. Non-biological processes are known to produce morphologies similar to some microfossils, and hydrothermal fluids have the potential to produce abiotic organic compounds with depleted carbon isotope values, making it difficult to establish unambiguous traces of life. Here we report the discovery of a population of large (up to about 300 mum in diameter) carbonaceous spheroidal microstructures in Mesoarchaean shales and siltstones of the Moodies Group, South Africa, the Earth's oldest siliciclastic alluvial to tidal-estuarine deposits. These microstructures are interpreted as organic-walled microfossils on the basis of petrographic and geochemical evidence for their endogenicity and syngeneity, their carbonaceous composition, cellular morphology and ultrastructure, occurrence in populations, taphonomic features of soft wall deformation, and the geological context plausible for life, as well as a lack of abiotic explanation falsifying a biological origin. These are the oldest and largest Archaean organic-walled spheroidal microfossils reported so far. Our observations suggest that relatively large microorganisms cohabited with earlier reported benthic microbial mats in the photic zone of marginal marine siliciclastic environments 3.2 billion years ago.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acids
  • Bacteria / chemistry
  • Bacteria / cytology
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Carbon / analysis
  • Carbon / chemistry
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Ecosystem*
  • Eukaryotic Cells / chemistry
  • Eukaryotic Cells / cytology
  • Fossils*
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • History, Ancient
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Organic Chemicals / analysis*
  • Organic Chemicals / chemistry
  • Phylogeny*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Seawater / microbiology*
  • South Africa
  • Spectrum Analysis, Raman
  • Sunlight


  • Acids
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Organic Chemicals
  • Carbon