A Scottish fossil hotspot reveals new secrets about early life forms

A Scottish fossil hotspot reveals new secrets about early life forms

New scanning technology cuts through the world-famous fossil remains and gives us a glimpse into the microbial world as it existed more than 400 million years ago.

The molecular fingerprint of bacteria, fungi, and other mysterious creatures has never been more visible under a magnifying glass. And for good reason: It can tell us more about the origin, evolution, and interaction of early life on our planet. A team of Scots University of Edinburgh Very excited about the new FTIR spectroscopy, prof technology Using infrared light to penetrate fossil remains deeply without damaging them. In addition, more and more accurate data than ever before can be collected and analyzed.

A mysterious microbial residue
The scientists focused their scanners on nearly 400 million year old fossils from Rhynie Chert, a surface layer of Hornstone in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, formed in the early Devonian period. At that time there were no trees on Earth and animal life was still in its infancy. Rhynie Chert is an important site for fossils of mainly terrestrial plants. Fossils have taught us a lot about the early evolution of plants, but if we zoom in even further on the fossil-rich rocks, they also appear to be full of fuzzy remains of microbes.

The team compares the unusual fossilized site to the Rosetta Stone, which helped Egyptologists decipher hieroglyphs. Likewise, they hope to discover the identity and evolutionary process of ancient life forms by analyzing the chemical symbols in the Scottish fossils. They applied state-of-the-art deep scanning methods to fossil specimens from the collections of the National Museum of Scotland and the University of Oxford, among others. The FTIR data is then fed into machine learning software, which eventually yields new insights.

It was already known from previous analyses which organisms were hidden in the fossils. With this information, it was possible to determine the molecular signature of fungi, bacteria, and other life forms and thus better differentiate them. The team then used these patterns to further investigate more obscure members of the Rhynie ecosystem, including a tube-shaped creature called a “nematophyte.” Nematophytes are very special organisms, which we find in fossils from about 430 to 380 million years ago. It is unclear where they stand on the evolutionary ladder. They look like algae but also have fungal properties. The new study shows they may not belong to lichens or fungi, but they deserve a place of their own.

“We show how a rapid, non-invasive scanning method can tell the difference between life forms found in fossils. Researcher Sean McMahon of University of Edinburgh. The study describes how the team was able to classify different organisms by processing the data using a machine learning algorithm. In the same way, data sets from other fossils within rocks can be analyzed.

Physics, chemistry and paleontology come together
The study shows how important it is to combine paleontology, physics and chemistry. This gives us new insights into how life was organized on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago,” explains researcher Corentin Leron. Science has once again found a new way to dig deeper into the paleontological world than ever before and to make new discoveries about past eras, even in fossil remains least beautiful.

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