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  • Written by Kenneth Noll, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology, University of Connecticut
Were viruses around on Earth before living cells emerged? A microbiologist explains
Curious Kids[1] is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to[2]. Were there already viruses on Earth when the first living cells appeared billions of years ago? – Aayush A., age 16, India How life on Earth started has puzzled scientists for a long time. And it still does. Fossils provide very important evidence about the evolution of plants and animals. Unfortunately, there are very few fossils of ancient microbes available[3], so scientists rely on modern microbes to devise theories about how life started. I studied bacteria and another type of microbe called archaea from hot environments for many years[4] to learn how they might have evolved on early Earth, but I still have so many unanswered questions. Based on the fossil evidence we have, single-celled microbes appeared on Earth before larger cellular life like plants and animals. But which kinds of microbes were the very first kind of life? Some scientists think hydrothermal vents are the cradle of early life on Earth.Which microbes are considered alive? Microbes are living, single-celled creatures surrounded by a membrane. They consume and convert nutrients into biological molecules or energy and are too small to be seen without a microscope. By this definition, bacteria, archaea and single-celled eukaryotes are microbes. Bacteria and archaea[5] are single-celled creatures that lack internal membrane-enclosed structures, like a nucleus to hold their genetic material. Single-celled eukaryotes have a nucleus and may have other membrane-enclosed structures. Diagram comparing a eukaryotic and prokaryotic cell
Unlike prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells have membrane-enclosed structures like a nucleus and mitochondria. VectorMine/iStock via Getty Images Plus[6]

Some scientists consider viruses[7] to be microbes made of genetic material enclosed in a protein coat. They are unable to replicate on their own and hijack the machinery of other cells to make copies of themselves. Because they don’t have many features of living cells[8], they are not technically alive[9].

Evidence for early life on Earth

Fossils can provide scientists with clues as to when life started, but they best record hard things like bones and teeth. Microbes are made of soft materials that do not fossilize well. However, some live together in very large groups of cells that can accumulate minerals and leave behind quite large fossils.

For example, cyanobacteria formed large structures called stromatolites[10] in the oceans of early Earth. Scientists have found fossil stromatolites that date back to 3.48 billion years ago[11].

Stromatolites near a river Stromatolites can provide information about life on early Earth. Jana Kriz/Moment via Getty Images[12]

Other scientists found what they believe are fossilized archaea[13] in rocks from a 3.4 billion-year-old hot seafloor. The Earth became habitable about 4 billion years ago, so bacteria and archaea must have appeared between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago.

Looking at the chemical reactions that cells carry out can also provide clues. The reactions that make biological molecules and generate energy make up what’s called the cell’s metabolism. Scientists have found evidence that some metabolic reactions were occurring at least 4.1 billion years ago[14]. These reactions may have been occurring on their own before cells had evolved[15], perhaps on the surfaces of clays or minerals[16].

Theories about how life started on Earth

Cells copy their genetic material, made of DNA and RNA, to pass it on to new generations. Although DNA is the form of genetic material most living organisms use today, some scientists believe that RNA was the first information storage molecule[17] on early Earth because it can make copies of itself.

Because some modern viruses use RNA to store genetic information, some scientists believe that viruses could have evolved from self-replicating RNAs[18]. This possibility would mean that viruses may have appeared before bacteria. But because viruses don’t leave fossils behind, there isn’t available evidence to support this idea.

The RNA-world hypothesis proposes that self-replicating RNA evolved before DNA or proteins.

At some point, metabolic reactions and replication processes had to come together inside a membrane to make an early form of a cell: a pre-cell. Perhaps this happened when a viruslike structure infected a collection of metabolic reactions enclosed within a membrane. The pre-cell could then duplicate itself, leading to the evolution of the first living cell[19]. This cell would have been like today’s bacteria and archaea.

Maybe viruslike structures did form before cells. However, those simple viruslike structures might have been just pieces of DNA or RNA, so could they really be considered “viruses”?

Another popular theory states that viruses evolved from degenerated bacteria or archaea that lost most of the genetic instructions for carrying out metabolism and forming cells. There are many examples[20] of similar smaller degenerations that have occurred in the bacterial world today.

Uncovering early life

The surface of the Earth today is very different from what it was 4 billion years ago[21]. Some have speculated that deep under the Earth’s surface, where it is too hot for modern life, these early conditions might still be present[22], allowing some protolife forms to continue to exist where they are protected from being consumed by other microbes.

When people can explore other planets or moons, perhaps we will find processes similar to those that were at work on early Earth. This kind of discovery could help us solve the puzzle of life’s origin here.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to[23]. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.


  1. ^ Curious Kids (
  2. ^ (
  3. ^ very few fossils of ancient microbes available (
  4. ^ for many years (
  5. ^ Bacteria and archaea (
  6. ^ VectorMine/iStock via Getty Images Plus (
  7. ^ consider viruses (
  8. ^ features of living cells (
  9. ^ not technically alive (
  10. ^ stromatolites (
  11. ^ 3.48 billion years ago (
  12. ^ Jana Kriz/Moment via Getty Images (
  13. ^ fossilized archaea (
  14. ^ 4.1 billion years ago (
  15. ^ before cells had evolved (
  16. ^ clays or minerals (
  17. ^ first information storage molecule (
  18. ^ evolved from self-replicating RNAs (
  19. ^ evolution of the first living cell (
  20. ^ many examples (
  21. ^ what it was 4 billion years ago (
  22. ^ might still be present (
  23. ^ (

Authors: Kenneth Noll, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology, University of Connecticut

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