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Earliest Traces of Life as a Window on Life’s Origins

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Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)

Abstract

Life is the outcome of a complex network of chemical reactions and molecular interactions that emerged on Earth once primitive chemical automata could self-assemble in such a way that enabled them to self-reproduce and evolve. Yet exactly how, where and when life first appeared on our planet remains unknown. In this chapter, we review the various lines of evidence from fossil and geochemical traces of early life preserved in the geological record, which provide fundamental, albeit often rudimentary, insight into early life. The oldest fossils record the nature of life more than half a billion years after it emerged on Earth and suggest that considerable metabolic diversity had already evolved by this time. Microfossils, microbial mats, stromatolites and organic and inorganic geochemical signatures have been interpreted as compelling evidence for Archean biodiversity. In spite of the chemical enigmas of the earliest life and its limited record, characterization of the various classes of biosignatures indicative of life in its geological context provides guidance as to the earliest co-evolution of the geosphere and biosphere.

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Acknowledgements

SLC thanks the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NASA CAN7 Award# 16BB06I to the SETI Institute) and the PNNL EMSL user facility (DoE BER program).

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Cavalazzi, B., Hickman-Lewis, K., Brack, A., Cady, S.L. (2021). Earliest Traces of Life as a Window on Life’s Origins. In: Neubeck, A., McMahon, S. (eds) Prebiotic Chemistry and the Origin of Life. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-81039-9_10

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