Supernova Left Its Mark in Ancient Bacteria
Radioactive iron may be first fossil imprint of a nearby cosmic explosion
Shawn Bishop, a physicist at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, reported preliminary findings on 14 April at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver, Colorado.
In 2004, scientists reported finding the isotope iron-60, which does not form on Earth, in a piece of sea floor from the Pacific Ocean. They calculated how long ago this radioactive isotope had arrived by using the rate at which it decays over time. The culprit, they concluded, was a supernova in the cosmic neighbourhood.
Bishop wondered if he could find signs of that explosion in the fossil record on Earth. Some natural candidates are certain species of bacteria that gather iron from their environment to create 100-nanometre-wide magnetic crystals, which the microbes use to orient themselves within Earth’s magnetic field so that they can navigate to their preferred conditions. These 'magnetotactic' bacteria live in sea-floor sediments.
And it was. “It looks like there’s something there,” Bishop told reporters at the Denver meeting.
No one is sure what particular star might have exploded at this time, although one paper points to suspects in the Scorpius–Centaurus stellar association, at a distance of about 130 parsecs (424 light years) from the Sun.
“I’m really excited about this,” says Brian Thomas, an astrophysicist at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, who was not involved in the work. “The nice thing is that it’s directly tied to a specific event.”
“For me, philosophically, the charm is that this is sitting in the fossil record of our planet,” Bishop says. He and his team are now working on a second core, also from the Pacific, to see if it too holds the iron-60 signal.
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