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If the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 (another natural isotope, with six protons and seven neutrons) in the microfossil is quite different from that found in non-biological minerals, it is strong evidence that the sample found is of biological origin. To age the evidence, scientists use a method called radioactive dating.
This involves calculating the ratio of a slowly decaying radioactive material, like uranium to its final decay product (for uranium, that’s lead), in the sample.
Papineau, Little, and their team were lucky to find one of the few that remain and are protected from severe degradation by their unique geological features.
The most intriguing implication is that the discovery could radically change how we search for life on Mars.
In this case, for instance, if they found evidence that any of the carbon in the fossil is not of biological origin, it would lower the likelihood that the rock holds any evidence of life.
Trace fossils are the marks left by a living organism, such as feces, footprints or impressions of feathers or leaves.
A group of researchers led by Dominic Papineau of University College London announced that they’ve found microfossils that could be 4.3 billion years old, which is a mere 200 million years after the planet was formed.
In a remote part of Quebec in Canada, Papineau’s team found a piece of rock containing microfossils that they believe was once a part of a hydrothermal vent, which are giant structures spewing hot water and chemicals.
From that ratio, scientists can derive the age of the sample.
It’s the best method we have, but it has inherent uncertainties.
These bacteria like to form filaments, as can be seen in the picture above.