This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
A week ago, Nature (the premiere science journal) published a paper to which it devoted its cover page. Probably because the main team of the discovery was from France, the newspapers here in France (where I am spending a few weeks on various types of work) echoed it with front-page stories and interviews of the lead author, the Moroccan Abderrazak El-Albani. I have not searched the blogosphere and other media outlets thoroughly, but I have had the distinct impression that the discovery was not given its dues, either because it was not deeply appreciated by everyone or because it was not made in the "usual places" (US-UK centers of high-level research).
What is this discovery that I am calling "historic" and that everyone should have reported and commented on much more largely? Quite simply, El-Albani and his collaborators found hundreds of multi-cellular life fossils dating back to 2.1 billion years, while the earliest such complex life form had previously been only 670 million years old. Unicellular life forms (and thus the earliest appearance of life per se) dates back to about 3.8 billion years ago, but more complex multi-cellular organisms had never been found from such old epochs. As Le Monde wrote: "a new history of life -- biology textbooks would have to be rewritten..."
Why is it such a surprising discovery? First, this defies essentially what the whole scientific community had come to believe, though this is not a strong argument at all -- paradigms change and the scientific community has been known to go wrong on major issues. But more specifically, because the "molecular clock", which measures the timescales for mutations and thus can construct phylogenetic trees of life, would have to be seriously reworked. Moreover, as some skeptical observers have pointed out, 2.1 billion years ago Earth's atmosphere was very toxic and had very little oxygen (so important for life's energy generation to proceed). Other unconvinced scientists stress that these fossils (numbering close to 250 specimens, some up to 12 centimeters long) could, instead of real multi-cellular organisms, be mere stacks of simple unicellular life forms. But if, as the discoverers insist (they exhibit a suite of technical tests, including x-ray microtomography of the fossils showing complex internal structures), the fossils are really multi-cellular, then serious questions arise: what happened to these organisms later? did they die out? did life restart independently elsewhere on earth? why the huge 1.5 billion-year gap before the later life explosion? etc.It is interesting that this discovery was made in Gabon (West Africa), in a region that had been known for its geological and mineral -- but not biological -- richness. It is also noteworthy that the main discoverer is a Moroccan young researcher, who went to France for graduate studies in 1990 and got his doctorate in Geology in 1995; he is currently a CNRS fellow (French national research institution), and with his colleague Paul Sardini and his Gabonese student Frantz Ossa Ossa made this historic discovery. I should also stress the fact that the team brought in the expertise of some 20 specialists from various fields (paleontology, biology, chemistry, etc.) representing 17 institutions from 6 countries (France, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany, Belgium). It is also worth noting that, unfortunately, like Abdus Salam and Ahmed Zewail (the only two Muslim Nobel Prize winners in the sciences), El-Albani did his undergraduate studies in his home country, but his Ph. D. and research in the west. Am I putting El-Albani in the same league as those two great scientists? If this discovery is confirmed, the Nobel Prize could be a real possibility, but that's a big IF..