JUL 12, 2018 02:30 PM PDT

The World's Oldest Colors

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

A research team led by scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) has unearthed the world’s oldest colors in a study of ancient oceans. Rocks that were taken from far below the surface of the Sahara desert were shown to contain bright pink pigments that are about 1.1 billion years old, making them half a billion years older than colors previously identified, and the oldest colors in the geological record. The findings have been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biogeochemistry Lab Manager Janet Hope from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences holds a vial of pink colored porphyrins representing the oldest intact pigments in the world. / Credit: The Australian National University

"The bright pink pigments are the molecular fossils of chlorophyll that were produced by ancient photosynthetic organisms inhabiting an ancient ocean that has long since vanished," explained Dr. Nur Gueneli from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. She discovered these molecules while doing work on her graduate thesis.

To get to the bacterial fossils, the scientists pulverized the rocks they found into powder and then did a molecular analysis to reveal ancient organisms that were contained in that rock. The research team, which included investigators from Geoscience Australia and researchers in Japan and the United States, found cyanobacteria in their samples. 

"The precise analysis of the ancient pigments confirmed that tiny cyanobacteria dominated the base of the food chain in the oceans a billion years ago, which helps to explain why animals did not exist at the time," Dr. Gueneli said.

Cyanobacteria get their energy through photosynthesis, and they are known as blue-green algae. According to the researchers, these bacteria and other microorganisms are thought to be the only inhabitants of the oceans around 1.8–0.8 billion years ago, during Earth’s middle age.

Large, active organisms didn’t have the food supply to sustain their existence, constraining their emergence, noted senior lead researcher Associate Professor Jochen Brocks from ANU. Algae wasn’t around at that time.

"Algae, although still microscopic, are a thousand times larger in volume than cyanobacteria, and are a much richer food source," noted Brocks, of the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. "The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth."

Sources: Phys.org via Australian National University, PNAS

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
OCT 13, 2019
Health & Medicine
OCT 13, 2019
Increasing Incidence of Tick-Borne Illnesses in Pennsylvania
Babesiosis is a vector-borne disease in which the parasite, Babesia, is transmitted through the bite of a tick, or rarely, a blood transfusion.  ...
OCT 13, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
OCT 13, 2019
A New Type of Cellular Communication is Discovered
While in a group, individual spirostomum can make ultrafast contractions in a coordinated fashion, without using chemical signals or contact....
OCT 13, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
OCT 13, 2019
Revealing the Epigenetic Patterns That Specific Enzymes Create
Genomic DNA is modified by chemical markers called epigenetic tags, which can change gene expression without altering the underlying genetic code....
OCT 13, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
OCT 13, 2019
Should We Use Epigenetic Tests to Verify Age Claims by Refugees?
  Around 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, with 37,000 people forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution eac...
OCT 13, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
OCT 13, 2019
Rearranging Whole Chromosomes with CRISPR
CRISPR/Cas9 was developed as a gene-editing tool and now it's going beyond small, targeted changes in the genome....
OCT 13, 2019
Microbiology
OCT 13, 2019
A Quick Squirt of Sanitizer May Not be Enough to Protect Against the Flu
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are thought to provide protection from pathogens that spread in saliva and mucus. But is that true?...
Loading Comments...