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By Maggie Fox

Researchers think they’ve found the remains of the oldest life on Earth — tiny bacteria that lived 3.7 billion years ago.

The fossils, called stromatolites, turned up when some snow melted in modern-day Greenland. If they really are fossils from bacteria, that takes the first evidence of life on Earth back more than 200 million years earlier than the previously oldest fossils.

Caption: Allen Nutman (left) and Vickie Bennet (right) with a specimen of 3,700 Myr-old stromatolites from Isua, Greenland.Yuri Amelin / University of Woollagong

Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia and colleagues found the formations in ancient rock — itself hard to find because the planet recycles old rock as the surface gets pushed down into the fluid mantle over the millennia.

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They argue the formations look very much like stromatolites found in Australia. The structures are not the actual remains of bacteria, but are formations made by the one-celled microbes as they form mat-like colonies in the water and pick up sand.

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These bacteria would have been living in shallow water, the team argues in the journal Nature.

"The complexity and setting of the Isua stromatolites points to sophistication in life systems at 3.7 billion years ago," they wrote.

The chemistry, sedimentary structures and minerals in the rocks suggest stromatolites were made by living organisms, they said.

Associate Professor Vickie Bennett, Professor Allen Nutman and Dr Clark Friend, examine the rocks in Greenland.Courtesy of Yuri Amelin / University of Wollongong Australia

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Genetic evidence suggests that life should have originated 4 billion years ago. The Earth itself is just 4.5 billion years old, and was bombarded by asteroids and other space debris early on.

Nowadays, stromatolites are rare, but some can be seen in Shark Bay in Australia. And Australia is home to the previous record holder for the oldest fossil on Earth — also a stromatolite structure.

Scientists looking for life on Mars are looking for just these kind of structures. They would have been made by microbes when Mars still was wet and was warmer than it is now.

It might be easier to find them on Mars than it is on Earth. Mars is not geologically as active as Earth is and doesn’t have active plate tectonics to recycle old surface rock.