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Modern, Weird Microbe Ecosystems May Reveal Clues to Early Life on Earth

First Posted: Feb 04, 2016 12:07 PM EST
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Modern microbial ecosystems may provide a window to early life on Earth. Scientists have taken a closer look at the world's most diverse and extensive ecosystems of living microbes and have learned a bit more about the emergence of life on our planet.

In this latest study, the researchers mapped one of the few living stromatolite communities in the world, located in Shark Bay in western Australia. The map of stromatolites revealed eight distinct "stromatolite provinces." Each of these were characterized by distinct morphological structures, many of which were previously unknown. The results altered previous growth models for Shark Bay stromatolites and documented the importance of mineral precipitation in the formation of the stromatolite framework.

Stromatolites are buildups of limestone, similar to coral reefs, that are formed by microbial mats. The activities of the microorganisms, particularly cyanobacteria, result in accretion of grains and precipitation of cements. Fossilized remains of stromatolites hold ancient records of early life for 75 percent of Earth's history.

"The time to study Shark Bay stromatolites is now as they are vulnerable to rising sea levels in the coming decades," said Erica Suosaari, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Continued monitoring and detailed studies of the Shark Bay World Heritage site will be critical for management and conservation of this unique landscape, and will advance our understanding of early Earth."

The findings reveal a bit more about the microbial communities and mineral precipitation in living stromatolites. This, in turn, gives researchers a window into early Earth, providing a basis for reconstructing ancient environments.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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