Scientists Trace 'World's Oldest Colours' From Africa

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

Scientists have discovered what they say are the world's oldest surviving biological colours, from ancient rocks beneath the Sahara desert.

Bright pink shades extracted from rocks deep beneath Africa's Sahara desert are more than half a billion years older than previous discoveries. That's about 600 million years older than similar chlorophyll fossils found previously, scientists reported in the new study. In fact, the ancient oceans that were once dominated by the cyanobacterial started to disappear when algae became prevalent.

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

Researchers said the pink pigment they discovered would have originally appeared blue-green to the human eye.

These pigments, according to Nur Gueneli of the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Earth Sciences, are the molecular fossils of chlorophyll, "produced by ancient photosynthetic organisms inhabiting an ancient ocean that has long since vanished".

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This handout photo taken on June 19, 2018 by the Australian National University (ANU) shows biogeochemistry lab manager Janet Hope from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences holding a vial of coloured porphyrins, a pink coloured liquid, in Canberra. First, dead organic matter - a bloom of cyanobacteria, for example - sinks quickly onto the seafloor. 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. It is a molecule that had a biological colour more than a billion years ago and still has one today. "Sheer amazement", Brocks said. This helps to explain why animals didn't exist at that time.

"Algae, although still microscopic, are 1000 times larger in volume than cyanobacteria, and are a much richer food source", Dr Brocks said.

But until the rise of algae, and more-complex organisms, the planet belonged to the bacteria.

The findings were published online July 9 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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