Groundbreaking technology has unveiled secrets about a world-famous fossil deposit that could provide vital clues about early life on Earth.
Researchers who analyzed the 400-million-year-old cache, which was found in rural north-east Scotland, say their results reveal better preservation of the fossils at the molecular level than previously expected.
New examination of the exquisitely preserved treasure trove from Aberdeenshire has enabled scientists to identify the chemical fingerprints of the various organisms within it.
Just as the Rosetta Stone helped Egyptologists translate hieroglyphs, the team hopes these alchemical symbols will help understand more about the identity of life forms, which are represented by other, more obscure fossils.
Discovered near the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie in 1912, the stunning fossil ecosystem is mineralized and coated with a hard rock composed of silica, known as Rhynie chert, which originated from the early Devonian period – about 407 million years ago – and has an important role in scientists’ understanding of life on Earth. the earth.
Combining the latest non-destructive imaging, data analysis and machine learning to analyze fossils from collections held by the National Museums of Scotland and the Universities of Aberdeen and Oxford, scientists from the University of Edinburgh have been able to probe deeper than previously possible, which they say can reveal New insights into less well-preserved specimens.
Using a technique known as FTIR spectroscopy — in which infrared light is used to collect high-resolution data — the researchers found impressive preservation of molecular information within cells, tissues and organisms in rocks.
Since they already knew which organisms most of the fossils represented, the team was able to discover molecular fingerprints that reliably distinguish fungi, bacteria, and other groups.
Those fingerprints were then used to identify some of the more obscure members of the Rhynie ecosystem, including two specimens of a mysterious tubular “nematophyte.”
Found in Devonian – and later Silurian – sediments, these strange organisms have both algal and fungal properties and were previously difficult to place in either category. The new findings indicate that they are unlikely to be lichens or fungi.
Dr Sean McMahon, Chancellor’s Fellow from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Earth Sciences, said: “We have shown how a rapid, non-invasive method can be used to distinguish between different life forms, and this opens a unique window into the diversity of early life on Earth.”
The team fed their data into a machine learning algorithm that was able to classify the different organisms, offering the possibility of sorting other datasets from other fossil-bearing rocks.
The study published in Nature CommunicationsFunded by the Royal Society, Wallonia–Brussels International and National Science and Technology Council of Mexico.
Dr Corentin Leron, Royal Newton International Fellow from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said the study shows the value of connecting paleontology with physics and chemistry to create new insights into early life.
“Our work highlights the unique scientific importance of some of Scotland’s amazing natural heritage and provides us with a tool to study life in the most complex and enigmatic remains,” said Dr Loron.
Dr Nick Fraser, Curator of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, believes the value of museum collections to understanding our world should never be underestimated. He said:
“The continued development of analytical techniques offers new ways to explore the past. Our new study provides another way to look deeper into the fossil record.”