Determining the Biogenicity of Microfossils in the Apex Chert, Western Australia, Using Transmission Electron MicroscopyFor over a decade, the oldest evidence for life on this planet has been microfossils in the 3.5 Ga Apex Chert in Western Australia. Recently, the biogenicity of these carbon-rich structures has been called into question through reanalysis of the local geology and reinterpretation of the original thin sections. Although initially described as a stratiform, bedded chert of siliceous clasts, the unit is now thought to be a brecciated hydrothermal vein chert. The high temperatures of a hydrothermal environment would probably have detrimental effects to early non-hyperthermophilic life, compared to that of a shallow sea. Conversely, a hydrothermal origin would suggest that if the microfossils were valid, they might have been hyperthermophilic. Apex Chert controversy. The Apex Chert microfossils were originally described as septate filaments composed of kerogen similar in morphology to Proterozoic and modern cyanobacteria. However new thin section analysis shows that these carbonaceous structures are not simple filaments. Many of the original microfossils are branched and have variable thickness when the plane of focus is changed. Hydrothermal alteration of organic remains has also been suggested for the creation of these strange morphologies. Another point of contention lies with the nature of the carbon material in these proposed microfossils. Kerogen is structurally amorphous, but transforms into well-ordered graphite under high pressures and temperatures. Raman spectrometry of the carbonaceous material in the proposed microfossils has been interpreted both as partially graphitized kerogen and amorphous graphite. However, these results are inconclusive, since Raman spectrometry cannot adequately discriminate between kerogen and disordered graphite. There are also opposing views for the origin of the carbon in the Apex Chert. The carbon would be biogenic if the proposed microfossils are indeed the remains of former living organisms. However, an inorganic Fischer- Tropsch-type synthesis is also a possible explanation for the formation of large-aggregate carbonaceous particles and could also account for the depletion of (13)C observed.
DeGregorio, B. T. (Arizona State Univ. Tempe, AZ, United States)
Sharp, T. G. (Arizona State Univ. Tempe, AZ, United States)