Reasons to Believe

Experiencing How Early Life Lived

New Discovery Affirms RTB Model Predictions

Photo of Fazale 'Fuz' RanaEven though I’m a budget-hotel kinda guy, occasionally I splurge and stay in a really nice place. It’s fun to get a chance to experience firsthand how the “other half” lives.

A recent study of some of the microbes found in Lake Matano (Indonesia), the world’s eighth deepest lake, provides biologists and geologists a first-hand look at how the earliest life on Earth lived. This new insight provides more evidence for RTB’s origin-of-life model.

RTB and Evolutionary Origin-of-Life Models

One of the key points of difference between the RTB and evolutionary models centers on the timing of life’s first appearance on Earth. The RTB scientific creation model, based on Genesis 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:9-12, predicts that life should appear early in Earth’s history and that the first life-forms should be inherently complex.

Evolutionary origin-of-life models, on the other hand, require a long percolation time, perhaps up to one billion years, before life can emerge from a primordial soup. These naturalistic scenarios also predict that the first life-forms should be relatively simple.

The Scientific Evidence

As described in Origins of Life, geochemical evidence already indicates that life was present remarkably early in Earth’s history, possibly as far back as 3.8+ billion years ago. (Prior to this time, life would have been impossible on Earth, since the planet’s conditions were “hellish” and unsuitable for life.)

Some origin-of-life researchers, however, question the authenticity of these geochemical finds. They maintain that these markers for early life are actually artifacts produced by inorganic processes.

Banded Iron Formation

One potential biomarker under question is banded iron formations (BIFs). These unusual iron ore deposits are found in sedimentary rocks dated older than 1.8 billion years in age. BIFs are most abundant between 1.8 and 2.5 billion years ago, but also exist in rock formations as old as about 3.8 billion years in age.

BIFs consist of alternating layers of chert (silica) and the minerals hematite (Fe2O3) and magnetite (Fe3O4). Deposits of this type don’t form today. Geologists believe that BIFs formed at a time in Earth’s history when high levels of dissolved iron (Fe2+) and silica existed in the oceans. The silica deposited in ocean sediments to form the chert layers. Geologists maintain that the iron ore “bands” formed when the dissolved Fe2+ became oxidized to form hematite (Fe2O3) and magnetite (Fe3O4).

Most geologists think that BIFs dated between 1.8 and 2.5 billion years ago resulted from biological oxidation when the oxygen generated by cyanobacteria converted Fe2+ to Fe3+

Banded Iron Formations on Early Earth

In other words, BIFs stand as a marker for biological activity. But what about the BIFs deposited in the geological record before that time? Does their presence mean that life existed on Earth as far back as 3.8 billion years ago? Not necessarily, according to some scientists. It’s possible that these BIFs were generated by inorganic oxidation processes or by a UV radiation-driven reaction.

Other researchers have pointed out that the low levels of oxygen on the early Earth make it unlikely that inorganic oxidation could have produced the ancient BIFs. In a similar vein, while scientists have successfully generated BIF-like materials in the lab using UV radiation, it doesn’t seem probable that this process would operate under the complex chemical conditions of the early Earth.

These problems indirectly suggest that biological oxidation accounts for the production of the earliest BIFs on Earth. Still, this explanation comes with challenges. Many origin-of-life researchers tend to doubt if cyanobacteria were present on Earth at 3.8 billion years ago. It’s possible that another group of photosynthetic bacteria (anoxygenic phototrophs) could have produced the BIFs. These bacteria can oxidize Fe2+ to Fe3+ as part of their photosynthetic activity. The issue with this scenario is that these microbes live in highly specialized environments that consist of iron-rich, shallow ephemeral water. These environs are not good analogs to the oceans of the early Earth.

The work of the biologists and geologists on Lake Matano weighs in here. These scientists have just discovered anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria in Lake Matano that can oxidize Fe2+. This lake closely compares to the most likely conditions for the oceans on early Earth. If photosynthetic bacteria can convert Fe2+ to Fe3+ in Lake Matano, it makes it even more likely that BIFs that date to 3.8 billion years in age are biogenic products generated by bacteria that engage in anoxygenic photosynthesis.

BIFs, along with other biomarkers, collectively indicate that life originated early in Earth’s history as soon as our planet could sustain life. The microbes that generated BIFs must have been metabolically complex, given what we know about the anoxygenic microbes that are capable of phototropically oxidizing Fe2+in Lake Matano.

This new insight adds further support for the RTB origins-of-life model and, at the same time, makes little sense within an evolutionary framework. The sudden appearance of metabolically complex life on Earth comports well with the notion that a Creator intervened to bring about the creation of the first life-forms on Earth.

The accommodations in the Archean oceans for the earliest life on Earth may not meet the four-star quality that many people expect when they stay in a high-end hotel, but it appears to have suited these organisms just fine.

Subjects: First Life on Earth, TCM - Life's Origin

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana