Odd Geometry of Bacteria May Provide New Way to Study Earth's Oldest Fossils

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One way that geologists try to decipher how cells functioned as far back as 3 billion years is by studying modern microbial mats, or gooey layers of nutrient-exchanging bacteria that grow mostly on moist surfaces and collect dirt and minerals that crystallize over time. Eventually, the bacteria turn to stone just beneath the crystallized material, thereby recording their history within the crystalline skeletons. Known as stromatolites, the layered rock formations are considered to be the oldest fossils on Earth.

Deciphering the few clues about ancient bacterial life that are seen in these poorly preserved rocks has been difficult, but researchers from MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and the Russian Academy of Sciences may have found a way to glean new information from the fossils. Specifically, they have linked the even spacing between the thousands of tiny cones that dot the surfaces of stromatolite-forming microbial mats -- a pattern that also appears in cross-sectional slices of stromatolites that are 2.8 billion years old -- to photosynthesis.

In a paper published May 17, 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the researchers suggest that the characteristic centimeter-scale spacing between neighboring cones that appears on modern microbial mats and the conical stromatolites they form occurs as a result of the daily competition for nutrients between neighboring mats.

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