Swedish scientists discover ‘oldest plant life on Earth’

Scientists have discovered plant life that is 1.6 billion years old, putting the origin of plant life on the planet back 400 million years earlier than previously thought.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN (MARCH 22, 2017) (REUTERS) – Scientists at Sweden’s Museum of National History have discovered fossilised plant life that is 1.6 billion years old, putting the origin of plant life on the planet back 400 million years compared to previous estimates.

Using 3D computer technology, the scientists have been able to identify and study red algae in ancient rocks discovered in India without destroying them. Their research has revealed that advanced plant life existed much earlier than previously thought.

The rocks containing the fossils were collected in India and transported to Sweden to avoid any possible contamination, and tests show that the rocks themselves are around 1.6 billion years old.

“There’s been a lot of datings done on rocks above and below to get this narrow window of time, so we’re definitely sure that the rock that contains these fossils is 1.6 billion years old,” said Therese Sallstedt, guest researcher at the Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

The Swedish researchers used radiometric dating on lead isotopes found in the rock specimens, which have longer decay rates than those used in carbon dating techniques.

“We can also see that the fossils are clearly embedded in the rock so there’s nothing that could have entered after the rock was formed, so that’s also an important point”.

These advanced plant life forms predate the Cambrian explosion between 488 and 542 million years ago, a period which was a pivotal point in the history of life when many major animal groups first appeared.

The fossilised red algae the scientists found share features with different kinds of red algae found today, suggesting they all share a common ancestor.

Microscopes and computers have been used to generate the three-dimensional models which allow the researchers to study the fossils and their contents in great detail.

Using X-ray technology, researchers can manipulate the images to “cut” into the fossils and examine their contents on digital “slides” without destroying the fossils or the rocks that contain them.

The team used synchotron-generated X-rays, similar to the technology used for CT scans in hospitals but with higher beam energies. This allowed them to construct 3D models with a resolution of less than a thousandth of a millimetre.

Stefan Bengtson, Professor of Paleozoology at the museum, says that the fossils could still yield more revelations, and that future technological advances may help them make further discoveries in the future.

“When the technique develops we can also go to finer details – not only a thousandth of a millimetre that we are looking at today but perhaps a millionth of a millimetre, or at least some millionths of a millimetre,” he said.