Written by Kevin C. Nice | published
On an Argentine plateau in the salt plains of Puna de Atacama, scientists have recently discovered an entire system of lakes that are part of an ecosystem that had been hidden until now. Within these lakes are giant, layered rocks called stromatolites, which are formed by the photosynthesis of cyanobacteria, a type of blue-green algae. These stromatolites could provide scientists with new insight into the oldest life forms to have evolved on our planet, and perhaps, as emerging research suggests, life on Mars.
These hidden lakes give scientists insight into life as it was on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.
Scientists at NASA believe that stromatolites like those found in the newly discovered Hidden Lake System are one of the oldest ecosystems on our planet. They contain the oldest fossil record of life on Earth from about 3.5 billion years into our past.
According to one of the University of Colorado Boulder’s geosciences professors, Brian Hynek, the fossils found in these stromatolites represent something like the first large Earth fossils in an environment that is very rare on our planet.
These hidden lakes give scientists insight into life as it was on Earth 3.5 billion years ago. In the Precambrian era of our planet’s prehistory, which extended from about 4.6 billion to 541 million years ago, stromatolites were very common and spread throughout the world. At this point in our history, they are found in only a few places around the world.
But ancient stromatolites like those found in the hidden lakes of Puna de Atacama are much larger than the ones we see on our planet now, up to 20 feet (6 meters) long and 16 to 22 feet (5 to 7 meters) wide. . The newly discovered stromatolites are not that large, measuring about 15 feet (4.5 meters) across. Hynek says it’s not known for certain how these stromatolites became so large, though he thinks the reason may be the fact that their ecosystem has remained undisturbed for so long.
It is possible, according to Hynek, that the stromatolites found in hidden lakes are the result of anoxygenic photosynthesis by microbes. If this is the case, it may provide us with a greater understanding of the possibility of life on Mars. Since the Red Planet has more than 600 ancient lakes, it could also have had an ocean at one point, meaning it looked a lot like Earth in the previous thousands of years.
These stromatolites in hidden lakes also contain halite and gypsum, minerals known to be abundant on Mars. The question is whether Mars developed life through photosynthesis, but if it did, according to Hynek, these stromatolites are exactly where we would expect to find them.
There are other poignant issues, such as when oxygen evolved on Mars and whether conditions were suitable at some point in the planet’s past to produce life, but studying these ancient stromatolites will help us learn more about our planet’s early history and provide insight into life on other worlds.
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