Exceptionally well preserved ‘1-billion-year-old cells’

by Phil Robinson

Published July 2019

Microfossils of single-cell organisms have been discovered in the Cailleach Head Formation, western Scotland. A research team from the University of Western Australia and Boston College were examining centimetre-sized phosphatic nodules when they made an astonishing discovery. They were able to gaze upon distinct cellular structures: rounded intracellular inclusions and what were described as ‘very delicate wispy organic features’. The research team were amazed as, “Exceptional microfossil preservation, whereby sub-cellular details of an organism are conserved, remains extremely rare in the Precambrian rock record”. It is thought that these cells were likely eukaryotic algae or cyanobacteria.

The study suggested that during the Precambrian, around 1 billion years ago (according to secular geological timescales), the Cailleach Head lakes were supplied by large rivers with heavy sediment loads which buried the cells. A high concentration of two rare earth element phosphate (REE) minerals, monazite and xenotime in the sediment, filled them quickly preserving in great details their insides. “In this setting, [it was the] rapid post-mortem precipitation of these REE phosphates resulted in exceptional preservation of sub-cellular detail in selected cells”.

This is the first reported instance of the amazingly well preserved structure of inner cells due to the presence of the rare earth element phosphates. The phosphates have not been reported previously with any other microfossils. The preservation of these microfossils is adequately explained by Noah’s Flood around 4,500 years ago. It provides not just the rapid burial mechanism for these microfossils, but also for the entire sedimentary layer in which they are found. The waters at the time of Noah’s flood carried huge amounts of sediment, including these REE phosphates. Most of the sedimentary layers that we observe on the surface of the earth today, many of them fossil bearing, were created rapidly during the Flood. Whether it be the micro or the macro, a single-cell organism, or a large sauropod dinosaur, rapid sedimentation processes are always involved in their preservation.



Wacey, D., and 3 others., 1 billion-year-old cell contents preserved in monazite and xenotime,  Scientific Reports 9:9068, 2019 | doi:10.1038/s41598-019-45575-4.

Pomeroy, R., Scientists gaze inside 1 Billion-year-old cells, realclearscience.com, 24 June 2019.