Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Oxygen-free early oceans likely delayed rise of life on planet

Date:
January 10, 2011
Source:
University of California - Riverside
Summary:
Geologists have found chemical evidence in 2.6-billion-year-old rocks that indicates that Earth's ancient oceans were oxygen-free and contained abundant hydrogen sulfide in some areas. The researchers are the first to show that ample hydrogen sulfide in the ocean was possible this early in Earth's history. The finding adds to growing evidence showing that ancient ocean chemistry was far more complex than previously imagined and likely influenced life's evolution on Earth in unexpected ways.

Geologists at the University of California, Riverside have found chemical evidence in 2.6-billion-year-old rocks that indicates that Earth's ancient oceans were oxygen-free and, surprisingly, contained abundant hydrogen sulfide in some areas.

Related Articles


"We are the first to show that ample hydrogen sulfide in the ocean was possible this early in Earth's history," said Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry and the senior investigator in the study, which appears in the February issue of Geology. "This surprising finding adds to growing evidence showing that ancient ocean chemistry was far more complex than previously imagined and likely influenced life's evolution on Earth in unexpected ways -- such as, by delaying the appearance and proliferation of some key groups of organisms."

Ordinarily, hydrogen sulfide in the ocean is tied to the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even small amounts of oxygen favor continental weathering of rocks, resulting in sulfate, which in turn gets transported to the ocean by rivers. Bacteria then convert this sulfate into hydrogen sulfide.

How then did the ancient oceans contain hydrogen sulfide in the near absence of oxygen, as the 2.6-million-year-old rocks indicate? The UC Riverside-led team explains that sulfate delivery in an oxygen-free environment can also occur in sufficient amounts via volcanic sources, with bacteria processing the sulfate into hydrogen sulfide.

Specifically, Lyons and colleagues examined rocks rich in pyrite -- an iron sulfide mineral commonly known as fool's gold -- that date back to the Archean eon of geologic history (3.9 to 2.5 billion years ago) and typify very low-oxygen environments. Found in Western Australia, these rocks have preserved chemical signatures that constitute some of the best records of the very early evolutionary history of life on the planet.

The rocks formed 200 million years before oxygen amounts spiked during the so-called "Great Oxidation Event" -- an event 2.4 billion years ago that helped set the stage for life's proliferation on Earth.

"Our previous work showed evidence for hydrogen sulfide in the ocean more than 100 million years before the first appreciable accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere at the Great Oxidation Event," Lyons said. "The data pointing to this 2.5 billion-year-old hydrogen sulfide are fingerprints of incipient atmospheric oxygenation. Now, in contrast, our evidence for abundant 2.6 billion-year-old hydrogen sulfide in the ocean -- that is, another 100 million years earlier -- shows that oxygen wasn't a prerequisite. The important implication is that hydrogen sulfide was potentially common for a billion or more years before the Great Oxidation Event, and that kind of ocean chemistry has key implications for the evolution of early life."

Clint Scott, the first author of the research paper and a former graduate student in Lyons's lab, said the team was also surprised to find that the Archean rocks recorded no enrichments of the trace element molybdenum, a key micronutrient for life that serves as a proxy for oceanic and atmospheric oxygen amounts.

The absence of molybdenum, Scott explained, indicates the absence of oxidative weathering of the continental rocks at this time (continents are the primary source of molybdenum in the oceans). Moreover, the development of early life, such as cyanobacteria, is determined by the amount of molybdenum in the ocean; without this life-affirming micronutrient, cyanobacteria could not become abundant enough to produce large quantities of oxygen.

"Molybdenum is enriched in our previously studied 2.5 billion-year-old Archean rocks, which ties to the earliest hints of atmospheric oxygenation as a harbinger of the Great Oxidation Event," Scott said. "The scarcity of molybdenum in rocks deposited 100 million years earlier, however, reflects its scarcity also in the overlying water column. Such metal deficiencies suggest that cyanobacteria were probably struggling to produce oxygen when these rocks formed.

"Our research has important implications for the evolutionary history of life on Earth," Scott added, "because biological evolution both initiated and responded to changes in ocean chemistry. We are trying to piece together the cause-and-effect relationships that resulted, billions of years later, in the evolution of animals and, ultimately, humans. This is really the story of how we got here."

The first animals do not appear in the fossil record until around 600 million years ago -- almost two billion years after the rocks studied by Scott and his team formed. The steady build-up of oxygen, which began towards the end of the Archean, played a key role in the evolution of new life forms.

"Future research needs to focus on whether sulfidic and oxygen-free conditions were prevalent throughout the Archean, as our model predicts," Scott said.

Lyons and Scott were accompanied on this project by Christopher Reinhard from UCR; Andrey Bekker from the University of Manitoba, Canada; Bernhard Schnetger from Oldenburg University, Germany; Bryan Krapež from the Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia; and Douglas Rumble III from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC. Currently, Scott is a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, Canada.

Funding for this work came from the National Science Foundation, the NASA Exobiology Program, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and through a Canadian National Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California - Riverside. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. C. T. Scott, A. Bekker, C. T. Reinhard, B. Schnetger, B. Krapez, D. Rumble, T. W. Lyons. Late Archean euxinic conditions before the rise of atmospheric oxygen. Geology, 2011; 39 (2): 119 DOI: 10.1130/G31571.1

Cite This Page:

University of California - Riverside. "Oxygen-free early oceans likely delayed rise of life on planet." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 January 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110110151016.htm>.
University of California - Riverside. (2011, January 10). Oxygen-free early oceans likely delayed rise of life on planet. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110110151016.htm
University of California - Riverside. "Oxygen-free early oceans likely delayed rise of life on planet." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110110151016.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Fossils & Ruins News

Friday, November 28, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 27, 2014) A British palaeontologist has discovered a new species of dinosaur while studying fossils in a Canadian museum. Pentaceratops aquilonius was related to Triceratops and lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million years ago. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Reuters - Entertainment Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) The iconic piano from "Casablanca" and the Cowardly Lion suit from "The Wizard of Oz" fetch millions at auction. Sara Hemrajani reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
3D Map of Antarctic Sea Ice to Shed Light on Climate Change

3D Map of Antarctic Sea Ice to Shed Light on Climate Change

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 24, 2014) A multinational group of scientists have released the first ever detailed, high-resolution 3-D maps of Antarctic sea ice. Using an underwater robot equipped with sonar, the researchers mapped the underside of a massive area of sea ice to gauge the impact of climate change. Ben Gruber reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ruins Thought To Be Port Actually Buried Greek City

Ruins Thought To Be Port Actually Buried Greek City

Newsy (Nov. 24, 2014) Media is calling it an "underwater Pompeii." Researchers have found ruins off the coast of Delos. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins