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But when organisms die, they no longer take in any carbon, and the carbon-14 in their bodies begins to decay at a known rate.
Scientists use particle accelerators to measure the amount of carbon-14 in biological materials to determine when that organism died.
Fossils arranged chronologically, for instance, can often suggest evolutionary relationships among species.
The results were proof that the fossils of microbes and bacteria in the rock are as old as the rock itself.
The fossils were determined to include five species with two being photosynthesizers, two methane-consuming organisms, and one that produced methane.
The dating of the fossil puts to rest a decades-long dispute among scientist over what is the oldest fossil found.
Using new techniques for aging fossils, scientists have confirmed that 3.5 billion years ago bacteria and microbes were on the planet, possibly before the planet had oxygen.