Evolution in the News - December 2003
by Do-While Jones

Microfossils Questioned

Remember those “microfossils” found in the “Martian meteorite” in 1996? They were described in all the newspapers. They turned out not to be fossils at all, but that fact wasn’t considered to be newsworthy by most newspapers.

The wormy-looking shapes discovered in a meteorite from Mars turned out to be purely mineralogical and never were alive. And last year some researchers claimed that the textbook examples of the earliest known life on Earth--the 3.5-billion-year-old "Warrawoona" microfossils from Australia--are nothing more than suggestively shaped geologic detritus [debris], not fossils (Science, 8 March 2002, p. 1812). Now, a paper in this issue of Science (p. 1194) strikes another blow for geology over biology: A group of researchers details how to cook up minerals in the laboratory that bear a striking resemblance to the Warrawoona microfossils. 1

The recipe for fossil-like minerals turns out to be rather simple: silica, carbonate, and barium in an alkaline medium with a dash of simple organics. Geologist and crystallographer Juan Manuel García-Ruiz of the CSIC-University of Granada, Spain, and his colleagues mixed the inorganic ingredients at near room temperature and, at certain dilute concentrations of ingredients, produced sheets adorned with filaments, all composed of barium carbonate crystals coated with silica. These synthetic filaments look enough like true microfossils to be mistaken as the products of life, the authors say. And the lab conditions are similar to those at the time of the Warrawoona fossils, they say, to judge by the abundant carbonate, silica, and barium sulfate found among neighboring rocks. 2

So, not only are the “microfossils” in the “Martian meteorite” just ordinary rock formations, the fossils of the “earliest known life on Earth” are just ordinary rock formations, too. They haven’t found fossils of simple cellular organisms that evolved into other forms of life.

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1 Kerr, Science, Vol. 302, 14 November 2003, “Minerals Cooked Up in the Laboratory Call Ancient Microfossils Into Question”, page 1134, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.302.5648.1134a (Ev-)
2 ibid.