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Logic of 'life-without-oxygen' cells challenged

Posted By Bob Unruh On 08/23/2011 @ 8:49 pm In Front Page | Comments Disabled


NASA image of microfossils

An article in the journal Nature says that evidence found in ancient Australian rocks shows microbes lived some 3.4 billion years ago and used sulphur instead of oxygen for their metabolizing processes, so life on Earth actually developed in an oxygen-free zone.

But a scientist, a Ph.D. in geology, who has done research on the subject and has authored technical papers about origins issues — specifically radioactive dating problems — says that’s a leap of logic that might not have a basis in reality.

The Nature report came from David Wacey, Matt R. Kilburn, Martin Saunders and others who wrote that the sulphur isotope data from “early Archaean rocks” suggest microbes with metabolisms based on sulphur existed almost 3.5 billion years ago.

In addition to making the claim that the evidence found is 200 million years older than previously discovered microfossils, the paper concludes that since oxygen is not necessary for life, there could be similar developments in oxygen-less atmospheres, such as on Mars.

“Could these sorts of things exist on Mars? It’s just about conceivable,” Martin Brasier, the Oxford University scientist who worked on the team reporting the discovery, told Reuters.

“This evidence is certainly encouraging, and lack of oxygen on Mars is not a problem,” he said.

But scientist Andrew Snelling, who holds a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Sydney and has spent years in the research field, said the conclusions may be a step too far.

“They can’t draw the conclusions that they have,” he told WND. “It’s a big leap in the logic that just because you have sulfur-metabolizing bacteria provides the proof there was no oxygen in the atmosphere at the time.”

For example, he said the same bacteria, if that is what the study found, appears to be around today – in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Snelling also works with Answers in Genesis, an organization with a biblical worldview that seeks to expose the “bankruptcy” of evolutionary ideas.

‘”Facts’ don’t speak for themselves, but must be interpreted,” the organization says. “That is, there aren’t separate sets of ‘evidences’ for evolution and creation – we all deal with the same evidence (we all live on the same earth, have the same fossils, observe the same animals, etc.). The difference lies in how we interpret what we study. The Bible – the ‘history book of the universe’ – provides a reliable, eyewitness account of the beginning of all things, and can be trusted to tell the truth in all areas it touches on. Therefore, we are able to use it to help us make sense of this present world. When properly understood, the ‘evidence’ confirms the biblical account.”

Snelling said that just because there is bacteria that metabolizes sulphur doesn’t mean there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. He knows that, because bacteria today also metabolizes sulphur.

“This has been the problem with [these] claims. These guys this time are confident that they have found what they believe is the bacteria. Even if they have, they can’t draw the conclusions that they have. It’s a big leap of logic that just because you have sulphur-metabolizing bacteria that proves there was no oxygen in the atmosphere at the time,” he said.

He said such bacteria today are found in various locations that may not include high levels of oxygen, such as under water. But he also noted that the fossilized “bacteria” might be something else.

“It might look the same as bacteria, but you can’t prove it. They’re dead. You don’t see them in action in the rock,” he said.

The New York Times pointed out in a report on the claim that the cell-like structures that were found in the old rocks are “deceiving.” Many such features have turned out to be artifacts of nonbiological processes, the report said.

In this case, there is circumstantial evidence that the structures are biological, the report said.

Snelling said it’s a simple evaluation process. While “A” and “B” may exist, and “B” may follow “A,” that doesn’t necessarily prove that “A” causes “B.”

According to the report, the evidence of the microbes was found in rocks in the 3.4-billion-year-old Strelley Pool Formation in western Australia.

“We … identify them as microfossils of spheroidal and ellipsoidal cells and tubular sheaths demonstrating the organization of multiple cells,” the report said. “These microfossils are about 200 million years older than previously described6 microfossils from Palaeoarchaean siliciclastic environments.”

The New York Times report described the scenario proposed by the researchers.

It was not long after a whole-earth “reign of destruction” when waves of asteroids slammed into Earth and the surface included molten rock and boiling oceans that the microbes developed.

“The atmosphere was full of methane, since plants had not yet evolved to provide oxygen, and greenhouse warming from the methane had heated the oceans to the temperature of a hot bath,” the report said. “It was in these conditions, the geologists believe, that organisms resembling today’s bacteria lived in the crevices between the pebbles on the beach.”

The report also noted a dispute over which scientific team should be credited with finding the “oldest” fossil specimens.



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