Forming Fossils

Beginnings of Life

When did life first begin on Earth?

No one knows the precise time that life began on Earth. One reason is that early life consisted of single-celled organisms. Because the soft parts of an organism are the first to decay and disappear after death, it is almost impossible to find the remains. In addition, because the organisms were so small, they are now difficult to detect in ancient rocks. Some modern viruses are only about 18 nanometers (18 billionths of a meter) across and modern bacteria typically measure 1,000 nanometers across, which is much larger than the early organisms.

In addition, because scientists have found so little fossil evidence, it is difficult to know all the true shapes of the earliest life. Scientists believe that early life was composed of primitive single-cells and started in the oceans. The reason is simple: life needed a filter to protect it from the incoming ultraviolet energy from the Sun—and the ocean waters gave life that protection.

Despite such gaps in knowledge, scientists estimate that the first life began about four billion years ago. These organisms did not survive on oxygen, but carbon dioxide.


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