Scientists widely accept that around 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth's atmosphere underwent a dramatic change when oxygen levels rose sharply. Called the "Great Oxidation Event" (GOE), the oxygen spike marks an important milestone in Earth's history, the transformation from an oxygen-poor atmosphere to an oxygen-rich one paving the way for complex life to develop on the planet.
Two questions that remain unresolved in studies of the early Earth are when oxygen production via photosynthesis got started and when it began to alter the chemistry of Earth's ocean and atmosphere.
Now a research team led by geoscientists at the University of California, Riverside corroborates recent evidence that oxygen production began in Earth's oceans at least 100 million years before the GOE, and goes a step further in demonstrating that even very low concentrations of oxygen can have profound effects on ocean chemistry.
To arrive at their results, the researchers analyzed 2.5 billion-year-old black shales from Western Australia. Essentially representing fossilized pieces of the ancient seafloor, the fine layers within the rocks allowed the researchers to page through ocean chemistry's evolving history.
Specifically, the shales revealed that episodes of hydrogen sulfide accumulation in the oxygen-free deep ocean occurred nearly 100 million years before the GOE and up to 700 million years earlier than such conditions were predicted by past models for the early ocean. Scientists have long believed that the early ocean, for more than half of Earth's 4.6 billion-year history, was characterized instead by high amounts of dissolved iron under conditions of essentially no oxygen.
"The conventional wisdom has been that appreciable atmospheric oxygen is needed for sulfidic conditions to develop in the ocean," said Chris Reinhard, a Ph.D. graduate student in the Department of Earth Sciences and one of the research team members. "We found, however, that sulfidic conditions in the ocean are possible even when there is very little oxygen around, below about 1/100,000th of the oxygen in the modern atmosphere."
Reinhard explained that at even very low oxygen levels in the atmosphere, the mineral pyrite can weather on the continents, resulting in the delivery of sulfate to the ocean by rivers. Sulfate is the key ingredient in hydrogen sulfide formation in the ocean.Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry, whose laboratory led the research, explained that the hydrogen sulfide in the ocean is a fingerprint of photosynthetic production of oxygen 2.5 billion years ago.
Study results appear in the Oct. 30 issue of Science.
"Our data point to oxygen-producing photosynthesis long before concentrations of oxygen in the atmosphere were even a tiny fraction of what they are today, suggesting that oxygen-consuming chemical reactions were offsetting much of the production," said Reinhard, the lead author of the research paper.
The researchers argue that the presence of small amounts of oxygen may have stimulated the early evolution of eukaryotes – organisms whose cells bear nuclei – millions of years prior to the GOE.
"This initial oxygen production set the stage for the development of animals almost two billion years later," Lyons said. "The evolution of eukaryotes had to take place first."
The findings also have implications for the search for life on extrasolar planets.
"Our findings add to growing evidence suggesting that biological production of oxygen is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the evolution of complex life," Reinhard said. "A planetary atmosphere with abundant oxygen would provide a very promising biosignature. But one of the lessons here is that just because spectroscopic measurements don't detect oxygen in the atmosphere of another planet doesn't necessarily mean that no biological oxygen production is taking place."
To analyze the shales, Reinhard first pulverized them into a fine powder in Lyons's laboratory. Next, the powder was treated with a series of chemicals to extract different minerals. The extracts were then run on a mass-spectrometer at UC Riverside.
"One exciting thing about our discovery of sulfidic conditions occurring before the GOE is that it might shed light on ocean chemistry during other periods in the geologic record, such as a poorly understood 400 million-year interval between the GOE and around 1.8 billion years ago, a point in time when the deep oceans stopped showing signs of high iron concentrations," Reinhard said. "Now perhaps we have an explanation. If sulfidic conditions could occur with very small amounts of oxygen around, then they might have been even more common and widespread after the GOE."
Said Lyons, "This is important because oxygen-poor and sulfidic conditions almost certainly impacted the availability of nutrients essential to life, such as nitrogen and trace metals. The evolution of the ocean and atmosphere were in a cause-and-effect balance with the evolution of life."
Reinhard and Lyons were joined in the research by Clint Scott of UCR; Ariel Anbar of the Arizona State University, Tempe; and Rob Raiswell of the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.
The two-year study was supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.
The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment of about 18,000 is expected to grow to 21,000 students by 2020. The campus is planning a medical school and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Graduate Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.
A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.
Iqbal Pittalwala | EurekAlert!
NASA sees the end of ex-Tropical Cyclone 02W
21.04.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
New research unlocks forests' potential in climate change mitigation
21.04.2017 | Clemson University
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...
Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.
A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine
21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy