Earth's oldest biological colour discovered in rocks beneath Sahara Desert

Federico Mansilla
Julio 10, 2018

A group of scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) have discovered the oldest colors in the geological record.

Bright pink shades extracted from rocks deep beneath Africa's Sahara desert are more than half a billion years older than previous discoveries.

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 9, Gueneli and her team pulverized the billion-year-old rocks they found beneath the Sahara desert.

The pigments range from blood red to deep purple in their concentrated form, but are bright pink when diluted.

He said this explained why Earth, which was about 4.6 billion years old, had only been home to larger, animal-like creatures for about the last 600 million years.

The pigments found were produced by photosynthetic organisms that inhabited an ancient ocean.

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"These pink pigments, their exact structure and composition tells us there was an efficient energy food source missing at the base of the food web", he said.

Researchers described their discovery of ancient pigments in the journal PNAS.

An analysis of the pigments found they had been produced by cyanobacteria in the seas at the time.

The size of the cyanobacteria, however, was so minute that they were not sufficient for larger organisms such as animals. Once there, it must be isolated from any exposure to oxygen, which spurs decay, and then the rock that holds the material has to remain in one piece for a billion years, Brocks said. "Which helps to explain why animals did not exist at the time". The discovery of the ancient bright pink, however, can change this narrative.

Senior lead researcher Associate Professor Jochen Brocks from The Australian National University said that the emergence of large, active organisms was likely to have been restrained by a limited supply of larger food particles, such as algae. While algae is microscopic, it is many thousands of times larger than cyanobacteria making for a much richer food source. In fact, the ancient oceans that were once dominated by the cyanobacterial started to disappear when algae became prevalent.

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