Saudi authorities arrest 21 Hajj permit violators

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Did life on Earth originate in the waters of the Red Sea off the Saudi Arabian island of Sheybarah?

LONDON: “It was more of a chance discovery,” admits Volker Vahrenkamp with a smile.

“Sometimes you need a little luck for these things.”

Vahrenkamp, ​​a professor of geology at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, had set out with a team of colleagues to take a closer look at a coastal geological phenomenon they had discovered on satellite images.

Stromatolites are layered, rock-like structures created by tiny microbes, some of which trap sediment in their filaments. (UNSW Sydney/Brendan Burns)

The so-called tipi structures, tent-shaped bulges of sediment deposits in tidal zones, are valuable indicators of environmental changes in the past and present.

The team was delighted to discover that there were examples of this practically on their doorstep – just 400 kilometres up the coast from KAUST, off the southern tip of Sheybarah Island, best known for Red Sea Global’s luxury tourist resort of the same name.

“There aren’t really many good examples of tepee structures that you could use to study how they were formed,” Vahrenkamp told Arab News.

“Then we discovered this and it is the most spectacular example I know of.”

Satellite imagery had shown that there were two tepee fields in the island’s intertidal zone, and after a short boat ride from the mainland on a converted fishing boat, “we landed on the island, examined one field and then started walking across to the other.”

And then as they crossed the foreshore between the two, “we literally stepped on these stromatolites.”

Stromatolites are layered, rock-like structures created by tiny microbes that are individually invisible to the naked eye, some of which trap sediment in their filaments.

The stromatolites are built up in layers over the years thanks to the action of tiny microbes. (Photo by Elisa Garuglieri)

They live on rocks in the intertidal zone and are covered and uncovered daily by the coming and going of the tides. In a process known as biomineralization, they slowly convert the dissolved minerals and sand grains they capture into a solid mass.

Humans and all other living creatures on Earth that depend on oxygen to survive owe their existence to the tiny so-called cyanobacteria, which have been forming stromatolites for about 3.5 billion years.

Cyanobacteria were one of the first life forms on Earth, at a time when the planet’s atmosphere consisted mainly of carbon dioxide and methane. When they appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, they possessed a special ability – the ability to generate energy from sunlight.

In this section of a stromatolite, only 0.4 mm wide, the microbial filaments and the sediment trapped within them are clearly visible. (Photo by Elisa Garuglieri)

This process, photosynthesis, had an important byproduct – oxygen. Scientists now believe that the microscopic cyanobacteria were responsible for the greatest event that ever happened on the planet – the Great Oxidation Event, which changed the Earth’s atmosphere and laid the foundation for the evolution of oxygen-dependent life as we know it today.

Most stromatolites are now just fossils. As other life evolved on Earth, they lost their foothold in our planet’s oceans to competitors such as coral reefs.

Volker Vahrenkamp, ​​Professor of Geology at KAUST. (Supplied)

However, in some places in the world, “modern” living stromatolites continue to grow, “analogues of their ancient counterparts,” as Vahrenkamp puts it.

“Stromatolites are a remnant of the earliest life on Earth,” he said. “They dominated the Earth for an incredible period of time, about 3 billion years.”

“Today they are part of the rock archives in many parts of the world, but there is no way to figure out from these ancient rocks what kind of microbes were involved and how exactly they did what they did.”

INPAY

400 kilometers Removal of tipi fields from the KAUST campus

3 billion Years in which rocky stromatolites dominated the earth

120 Meters by which sea level was lower during the last ice age

That is why the discovery of a rare colony of living stromatolites, such as those found on the unique island of Sheybarah, is such a gift for geologists, biologists and environmental scientists.

“If you find a modern example like this, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to better understand how the interaction of this microbial community led to the formation of stromatolites.”

Other specimens are known, but these almost always occur in extreme environments, such as alkaline lakes and very saline lagoons, where competitors cannot thrive.

Sheybarah Island Resort. (Photo by Red Sea Global)

An earlier colony was found in a more normal marine environment, namely the Bahamas, which Vahrenkamp visited, which is why he quickly realized what he was stepping on off the island of Sheybarah. However, this is the first example of living stromatolites discovered in Saudi waters.

How old these stromatolites are is still unclear, “but one can roughly estimate it,” says Vahrenkamp.

“We know that sea levels here were 120 metres lower during the last ice age, so they didn’t exist 20,000 years ago. The area where they are located was flooded about 8,000 years ago to a height of about 2 metres above today’s level, and then sea levels dropped back to today’s level about 2,000 years ago.”

Sheybarah Island Resort. (Photo by Red Sea Global)

However, that doesn’t mean the stromatolites are 2,000 years old. No one knows how long it takes the microbes to form their sedimentary layer cake, and “no one has yet found a good way to date the layers.”

“The tide and waves bring in sand and material from the surrounding reefs, so all sorts of ages could be present. This makes it very difficult to accurately date the stromatolites and estimate the growth rate.”

That’s why Vahrenkamp and his colleagues are now developing an experiment to recreate the natural environment of ebb and flow and alternating sunlight and darkness in an aquarium. The goal is to grow stromatolites under controlled, easily observable conditions.

Sheybarah Island in an early stage of construction. (Photo by Red Sea Global)

Whether this will take weeks or many years, “we honestly don’t know.”

The team is also working on genetically sequencing many of the thousands of different species of microbial bacteria that work in the stromatolite factory.

“It’s about finding out who is there and who is doing what,” said Vahrenkamp

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in the (opinion field)

“Then the question arises as to what functionalities these bacteria have and whether we can use them for other purposes, for example in medicine.

“Scientists are currently intensively studying the microbial composition of our intestines to find out which microbes, for example, cause cancer and which prevent it. The microbacteria active in stromatolites could contain functional secrets that we simply don’t yet know.”

The discovery is also linked to the environmental ambitions of the Saudi Green Initiative, announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2021, which, together with the Middle East Green Initiative, aims to combat climate change through regional cooperation.

Sheybarah Island Resort. (Photo by Red Sea Global)

As Vahrenkamp and his seven co-authors wrote in a recent article published in Geology, the journal of the Geological Society of America, “the discovery of the Sheybarah stromatolite fields has important implications, not only from a scientific perspective, but also in terms of ecosystem services and environmental heritage awareness, in line with ongoing sustainability and ecotourism development projects promoted by Saudi Arabia.”

In the paper, the KAUST scientists thank Red Sea Global for assisting in accessing the stromatolite site, which is currently being considered for designation as a conservation area.

An added attraction for tourists relaxing in the spectacular new overwater villas on the crystal-clear Al Wajh Lagoon on Sheybarah Island is that a short stroll along the beach will allow them to step back in time and catch a glimpse of life on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.

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