Ancient fossil microorganisms indicate that life in the universe is common

J. William Schopf

J. William Schopf and colleagues from UCLA and the University of Wisconsin analyzed the microorganisms with cutting-edge technology called secondary ion mass spectroscopy.


Anew analysis of the oldest known fossil microorganisms provides strong evidence to support an increasingly widespread understanding that life in the universe is common.

The microorganisms, from Western Australia, are 3.465 billion years old. Scientists from UCLA and the University of Wisconsin–Madison report today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that two of the species they studied appear to have performed a primitive form of photosynthesis, another apparently produced methane gas, and two others appear to have consumed methane and used it to build their cell walls.

The evidence that a diverse group of organisms had already evolved extremely early in the Earth’s history — combined with scientists’ knowledge of the vast number of stars in the universe and the growing understanding that planets orbit so many of them — strengthens the case for life existing elsewhere in the universe because it would be extremely unlikely that life formed quickly on Earth but did not arise anywhere else.

“By 3.465 billion years ago, life was already diverse on Earth; that’s clear — primitive photosynthesizers, methane producers, methane users,” said J. William Schopf, a professor of paleobiology in the UCLA College, and the study’s lead author. “These are the first data that show the very diverse organisms at that time in Earth’s history, and our previous research has shown that there were sulfur users 3.4 billion years ago as well.

A microorganism analyzed by the researchers

A microorganism analyzed by the researchers

“This tells us life had to have begun substantially earlier and it confirms that it was not difficult for primitive life to form and to evolve into more advanced microorganisms.”

Schopf said scientists still do not know how much earlier life might have begun.

“But, if the conditions are right, it looks like life in the universe should be widespread,” he said.

The study is the most detailed ever conducted on microorganisms preserved in such ancient fossils. Researchers led by Schopf first described the fossils in the journal Science in 1993, and then substantiated their biological origin in the journal Nature in 2002. But the new study is the first to establish what kind of biological microbial organisms they are, and how advanced or primitive they are.

For the new research, Schopf and his colleagues analyzed the microorganisms with cutting-edge technology called secondary ion mass spectroscopy, or SIMS, which reveals the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 isotopes — information scientists can use to determine how the microorganisms lived. (Photosynthetic bacteria have different carbon signatures from methane producers and consumers, for example.) In 2000, Schopf became the first scientist to use SIMS to analyze microscopic fossils preserved in rocks; he said the technology will likely be used to study samples brought back from Mars for signs of life.

The Wisconsin researchers, led by geoscience professor John Valley, used a secondary ion mass spectrometer — one of just a few in the world — to separate the carbon from each fossil into its constituent isotopes and determine their ratios.

University of Wisconsin professor John Valley

University of Wisconsin professor John Valley

“The differences in carbon isotope ratios correlate with their shapes,” Valley said. “Their C-13-to-C-12 ratios are characteristic of biology and metabolic function.”

The fossils were formed at a time when there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere, Schopf said. He thinks that advanced photosynthesis had not yet evolved, and that oxygen first appeared on Earth approximately half a billion years later before its concentration in our atmosphere increased rapidly starting about 2 billion years ago.

Oxygen would have been poisonous to these microorganisms, and would have killed them, he said.

Primitive photosynthesizers are fairly rare on Earth today because they exist only in places where there is light but no oxygen — normally there is abundant oxygen anywhere there is light. And the existence of the rocks the scientists analyzed is also rather remarkable: The average lifetime of a rock exposed on the surface of the Earth is about 200 million years, Schopf said, adding that when he began his career, there was no fossil evidence of life dating back farther than 500 million years ago.

“The rocks we studied are about as far back as rocks go.”

While the study strongly suggests the presence of primitive life forms throughout the universe, Schopf said the presence of more advanced life is very possible but less certain.

One of the paper’s co-authors is Anatoliy Kudryavtsev, a senior scientist at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, of which Schopf is director. The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

In May 2017, a paper in PNAS by Schopf, UCLA graduate student Amanda Garcia and colleagues in Japan showed the Earth’s near-surface ocean temperature has dramatically decreased over the past 3.5 billion years. The work was based on their analysis of a type of ancient enzyme present in virtually all organisms.

In, 2015 Schopf was part of an international team of scientists that described in PNAS their discovery of the greatest absence of evolution ever reported — a type of deep-sea microorganism that appears not to have evolved over more than 2 billion years.

Moving Hollywood beyond ‘Black Panther’

Gina Prince-Bythewood, left, talks with UCLA Dean Darnell Hunt and Felicia D. Henderson about representation in Hollywood.


Two remarkable UCLA alums working in the film and television industries hope that Hollywood is leaping toward a “movement,” not just a “moment” when it comes to celebrating and investing in diversity.

As part of the recent launch of UCLA’s fifth annual Hollywood Diversity Report, Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, welcomed to campus Gina Prince-Bythewood and Felicia D. Henderson to talk about the diversity issues in film and television.

Prince-Bythewood is writer-director of the award-winning 2000 film “Love and Basketball” as well as “Beyond the Lights” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Her upcoming projects include a film adaptation of author Roxane Gay’s debut novel, “An Untamed State.” Prince-Bythewood is also the first African-American woman to direct a major-studio superhero film, as she takes the helm of Sony’s “Silver and Black,” set in the Spider-Man universe.

Henderson is the creator and executive producer of the BET drama “The Quad,” and co-executive producer of Netflix’s “The Punisher.” Her credits also include “Fringe,” “Gossip Girl,” and the seminal Showtime series “Soul Food.”

“We are seeing a change, but not consistent change,” Henderson said, pointing to the fact that 2013 was a banner year for filmmakers of color, but one that did not play out in the following years. “The more you see a success story like ‘Black Panther,’ while you celebrate it, it also freaks you completely out, because you don’t want it to just be a moment.”

Henderson pointed out the powerful marketing and budget around “Black Panther,” and the ways in which stars like Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross got behind the film — even buying out theaters in neighborhoods so members of the black community could see it.

“How do you make it a consistent change or ‘normal’ to have such movies as opposed to a moment?” said Henderson to the audience of people from campus and the industry at the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center. “How do we do that so it’s a movement instead of a moment?”

Answering that question and others that seek to explain Hollywood’s slow progress toward gender and racial parity is what makes the Hollywood Diversity Report and its year-over-year tracking incredibly important, she said.

Pat Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College, asks a question at the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report launch event.

Pat Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College, asks a question at the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report launch event.


As this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report shows, white men still fill a majority of credited roles in front of and behind the camera. And their continued domination of executive suites has a major influence on what kind of projects get a green light, Prince-Bythewood said.

She shared her experience pitching “An Untamed State” to several studios. Prince-Bythewood is an award-winning writer and director, the book upon which the project is based is a critically acclaimed best-seller, and also attached to the project is a three-time Academy Award nominee Michael De Luca. The book and film is survival story about a Haitian-American woman who is abducted, tortured and raped as she is held for ransom.

Prince-Bythewood said the first three pitch meetings were to rooms of white men, who listened politely, but were clearly uninterested.

But there was a palpable difference in the tone of the meeting when she pitched to Fox Searchlight, where the decision makers were two women of color. They bought the project before the meeting was over.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Prince-Bythewood said. “They just got it. They just felt it in their souls. We’re passionate about this project, but they might even be more passionate about it. The people we are pitching to, who are sitting across from us, they are going to greenlight what they respond to.”

During her Oscar acceptance speech this weekend, Frances McDormand, star of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” called for the industry to use “inclusion riders,” contracts that would require film and television projects to aim for gender and racial parity both on screen and off.

This is something Henderson committed to 15 years ago with “Soul Food,” requiring that half of all the episode directors in the series be women.

“I got a call from the Director’s Guild marveling that just by me doing that, the number of female directors in that year went up 75 percent,” she said. “That should not be. Things should not be so dismal that one showrunner’s choices can make that big of a difference.”

Another UCLA alumna, Ava DuVernay, who directed “A Wrinkle in Time,” which comes out March 9, has taken steps to increase representation behind the camera. The first African-American woman to helm a film with a budget of more than $100 million, DuVernay required all her department heads to be prepared to show proof that they had considered women and people of color for jobs. On her television show “Queen Sugar,” all the episodes have been directed by women.

People from UCLA and the entertainment industry attended the launch event and discussion for the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report.

People from UCLA and the entertainment industry attended the launch event and discussion for the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report.


Henderson observed that women and people of color are making more progress in television, pointing to Shonda Rhimes as an example. She said she hopes that film and television artists and producers embrace the creation of storylines and casting that specifically highlights the different cultures, behaviors and belief systems of people of color.

Henderson said that for executives the easiest way to show diversity is to hire some black people, which is one of the reasons numbers continue to improve for this section of the population in Hollywood. But if all characters are written with homogenous behavior and attitudes, that’s not really diversity, Henderson said.

Despite “Soul Food’s” critical and popular success, Henderson said doors didn’t exactly fling open for her ideas.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be able pitch all kinds of stories about black folks, this is going to be amazing,’” she said. “And yet what I found literally for five years of trying to pitch things that had the black experience at the center of it was excuses for ‘Soul Food’’s success, rather than a desire to extend it. I got a lot of, ‘Well, it was cable so you could depend on language and nudity,’ as if my storytelling depended on those things, which is incredibly offensive.”

When asked what advice the women would offer students or aspiring artists, Prince-Bythewood said passion and stamina are key.

“‘Love and Basketball’ took a year and a half, every studio turned it down, and then with ‘Beyond the Lights,’ everyone turned that down twice,” she said. “You will get a thousand ‘nos’ in this business so make sure you are passionate about the story you want to tell because that’s going to get you up off the floor and keep fighting.”

Henderson pointed out that for artists of color there is a different reality at play, especially when they are the only person of color in a room.

“I always tell my students, you do not have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to be the one who works the hardest,” she said. “Particularly for a person of color, just being as good as everyone else is not good enough.”

A sense of humor is critical, Henderson said. As the only African-American writer for “The Punisher,” all eyes often turn to her when discussing plotlines for the show’s only African-American character.

“I just pick up my cell phone and go, ‘hold on I have to call the committee,’” she joked.

UCLA, KCET team up for environmental storytelling and public media collaboration

UCLA professor Ursula Heise, at right, interviews Karen Mabb, U.S. Navy biologist, about the Green-cheeked parrot.

UCLA professor Ursula Heise, at right, interviews Karen Mabb, U.S. Navy biologist, about the Green-cheeked parrot.


Hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, extinctions: with near-constant coverage of disaster scenarios, communities around the country can be forgiven for experiencing environmental news fatigue. How can we engage 21st century audiences with new kinds of environmental stories?

UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies is trying to do just that. In partnership with KCET, the nation’s largest independent public television station, LENS has launched a yearlong collaboration to develop models and media for reporting environmental stories. Allison Carruth, faculty director of LENS and associate professor of English, is spearheading the project, which brings together the fields of anthropology, documentary filmmaking, English and environmental science.

“The collaboration offers an opportunity for faculty and students to craft immersive narratives about regional environmental issues, translating research into public engagement with diverse audiences,” observed Carruth, who is also affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Faculty participants in the project are training graduate students across disciplines in nonfiction narrative, journalistic writing, new media storytelling, interviewing, field research and video and audio production. At the same time, master’s students in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television documentary program are producing original documentary shorts under the direction of Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, assistant professor of film and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

“My time at UCLA has taught me that how people relate to nature is not just a scientific question, it’s a cultural and political one,” said Spencer Robins, who is pursuing his doctorate in English. “It’s vital that we understand the stories people tell about their place in the natural world, and that we think about what new stories could be told. LENS and KCET have created a laboratory where we can experiment with new ways of thinking about these issues.”

Courtney Cecale, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, agreed.

“I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to focus and reframe some of the processes happening quite literally in my own backyard,” Cecale said. “I’ve also appreciated the openness and flexibility that was awarded to us as contributors.”

The first of three planned storylines will go live on on Feb. 21. Led by Jon Christensen, LENS co-founder and adjunct assistant professor in IoES, the storyline focuses on the past, present and possible futures of Taylor Yard. Once a hub for Southern Pacific Railroad’s freight trains, Taylor Yard is now an undeveloped and still-contaminated site adjacent to the Los Angeles River. The articles, interactive web features, and a documentary short written and produced by Christensen, who also teaches history at UCLA, Guevara-Flanagan and LENS graduate students address how decisions about the future of Taylor Yard and development along the L.A. River are wrapped up in larger questions about what the future of Los Angeles should look like — and who gets a voice in determining these outcomes.

The next storyline, led by Ursula Heise, the Marcia H. Howard chair in literary studies in the English department at UCLA and who is also a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, will consider how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal and plant species that are sometimes endangered in their native habits.

The Green-cheeked parrot in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains is a particularly beloved example and is the focus of a short documentary that Guevara-Flanagan and Heise are producing with UCLA graduate students in the film, television and digital media department. These species raise intriguing questions about human-created urban ecosystems, biodiversity and opportunities for creating sanctuaries for endangered species.

Heise and Christensen are also working with KCET on upcoming episodes of “Earth Focus,” slated to premiere in April 2018 focusing on the global concerns of adaptation and exploring how environmental changes are forcing all living creatures to adapt in order to survive.

This spring, a third storyline led by Carruth will investigate emerging ideas for food sustainability in California and the role of artists, writers and activists in these movements.

“Our relationship with UCLA and LENS has proven invaluable,” said Juan Devis, chief creative officer at KCET. “Their team of researchers, journalists and scientists has provided us with a new multidisciplinary approach to understanding the environment in the 21st century, helping us shape the future of environmental journalism.”