Constraining the Time Interval for the Origin of Life on Earth
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Estimates of the time at which life arose on Earth make use of two types of evidence. First, astrophysical and geophysical studies provide a timescale for the formation of Earth and the Moon, for large impact events on early Earth, and for the cooling of the early magma ocean. From this evidence, we can deduce a habitability boundary, which is the earliest point at which Earth became habitable. Second, biosignatures in geological samples, including microfossils, stromatolites, and chemical isotope ratios, provide evidence for when life was actually present. From these observations we can deduce a biosignature boundary, which is the earliest point at which there is clear evidence that life existed. Studies with molecular phylogenetics and records of the changing level of oxygen in the atmosphere give additional information that helps to determine the biosignature boundary. Here, we review the data from a wide range of disciplines to summarize current information on the timings of these two boundaries. The habitability boundary could be as early as 4.5 Ga, the earliest possible estimate of the time at which Earth had a stable crust and hydrosphere, or as late as 3.9 Ga, the end of the period of heavy meteorite bombardment. The lack of consensus on whether there was a late heavy meteorite bombardment that was significant enough to prevent life is the largest uncertainty in estimating the time of the habitability boundary. The biosignature boundary is more closely constrained. Evidence from carbon isotope ratios and stromatolite fossils both point to a time close to 3.7 Ga. Life must have emerged in the interval between these two boundaries. The time taken for life to appear could, therefore, be within 200 Myr or as long as 800 Myr. Key Words: Origin of life-Astrobiology-Habitability-Biosignatures-Geochemistry-Early Earth. Astrobiology 18, 343-364.
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