Debate over signs of early life inspires dueling teams to go to Greenland — together

3-D images of the site could help other researchers study it from afar 

Greenland rocks

An ongoing debate about whether strange squiggles in Greenland rocks are signs of ancient life saw a détente in August, when scientists on both sides visited the site to talk it out.

Mike Toillion/NASA Astrobiology

Deep in the heart of Greenland, in an area recently laid bare by melting ice, lies a controversy: A rocky outcrop that some scientists say contains the oldest known signs of life on Earth. Others disagree. So a handful of scientists recently headed to the site to study it together.

It’s not easy to identify biological traces within rocks that have been churned and chewed by tectonic pressure and heat over billions of years. But figuring out how best to identify such traces on Earth could help scientists spot those signs on other worlds, such as Mars.

The Greenland outcrop, which dates to between 3.7 billion and 3.8 billion years ago, contains strange squiggles just a few centimeters tall. One team of scientists has suggested the wavy pattern was shaped by microbes living in ancient shallow pools (SN: 8/31/16). The microbes shifted sediments until they formed thinly layered structures called stromatolites, geologist Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia and colleagues reported in Nature in 2016.

Other scientists have rebutted that idea, based on geologic and chemical evidence from samples of the Greenland outcrop (SN: 10/17/18). Astrobiologist Abigail Allwood of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who led another study published in Nature in 2018, says that visiting the site herself in 2016 and getting a fuller, 3-D picture of the pattern within the entire outcrop was key to her conclusion.  

Abigail Allwood
A joint research trip to Greenland between dueling scientists was the brainchild of astrobiologist Abigail Allwood. Allwood, who contests the claim that the site contains signs of 3.8-million-year-old life, says that seeing the rocks in 3-D was key to her conclusion.Mike Toillion/NASA Astrobiology

With the two camps at an impasse, Allwood says she had an idea: What if a handful of scientists, including members of both teams, studied the outcrop together and compared notes? So in August, Allwood, Nutman and about 10 more geologists, astrobiologists and other specialists helicoptered in to the remote site.

Nutman introduced the group to the outcrop and laid out his evidence, and the researchers spent a day and a half observing and debating, says Dawn Sumner, an geobiologist at the University of California, Davis.

“A number of us went in with an open mind,” Sumner says. But by the end of the trip, she says, most expedition members concluded that the pattern’s peaks probably weren’t shaped by microbes. Seeing the structures in context, rather than in published images, was crucial to that result, Sumner says. “One of the things we came away with is how difficult it is to get a sense [of what formed the pattern] without actually being there.”

peaklike patterns on rock
These tiny peaklike patterns, just a few centimeters tall, may have been made in the rock by ancient microbes, some scientists say. But others contend the shapes were the product of tectonic forces.Mike Toillion/NASA Astrobiology

Nutman and his team remain committed to the microbial explanation. But all parties agreed on one thing: Building a three-dimensional picture of a site could be the key to accurately identifying signs of life.

Now, expedition members are doing just that, using aerial drone photographs, stereoscopic images and scans taken by light detection and ranging equipment, or lidar, during the trip. The goal is for other researchers to be able to study the site from afar, Sumner says — much like, perhaps, scientists might be able to someday squint at mysterious structures in Martian rocks.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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