Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Less life: Limited phosphorus recycling suppressed early Earth's biosphere

28.11.2017

The amount of biomass - life - in Earth's ancient oceans may have been limited due to low recycling of the key nutrient phosphorus, according to new research by the University of Washington and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The research, published online Nov. 22 in the journal Science Advances, also comments on the role of volcanism in supporting Earth's early biosphere -- and may even apply to the search for life on other worlds.


As Earth's oxygen levels rose to near-modern levels over the last 800 million years, phosphorus levels increased, as well, according to modeling led by the UW's Michael Kipp and others. Accordingly, Kipp says, large phosphate deposits show up in abundance in the rock record at about this time. This is a Wyoming portion of The Phosphoria Formation, a deposit that stretches across several states in the western United States and is the largest source of phosphorus fertilizer in the country. The photo shows layers of phosphorus that are 10s of meters thick, shales the contain high concentrations of organic carbon and phosphorus. Kipp said many such deposits are documented over time but are rare in the Precambrian era. "Thus, they might represent a conspicuous temporal record of limited phosphorus recycling."

Credit: Michael Kipp / University of Washington

The paper's lead author is Michael Kipp, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences; coauthor is Eva Stüeken, a research fellow at the University of St. Andrews and former UW postdoctoral researcher. Roger Buick, UW professor of Earth and space sciences, advised the researchers.

Their aim, Kipp said, was to use theoretical modeling to study how ocean phosphorus levels have changed throughout Earth's history.

"We were interested in phosphorus because it is thought to be the nutrient that limits the amount of life there is in the ocean, along with carbon and nitrogen," said Kipp. "You change the relative amount of those and you change, basically, the amount of biological productivity."

Kipp said their model shows the ability of phosphorus to be recycled in the ancient ocean "was much lower than today, maybe on the order of 10 times less."

All life needs abundant food to thrive, and the chemical element phosphorus - which washes into the ocean from rivers as phosphate -- is a key nutrient. Once in the ocean, phosphorus gets recycled several times as organisms such as plankton or eukaryotic algae that "eat" it are in turn consumed by other organisms.

"As these organisms use the phosphorus, they in turn get grazed upon, or they die and other bacteria decompose their organic matter," said Kipp, "and they release some of that phosphorus back into the ocean. It actually cycles through several times," allowing the liberated phosphorus to build up in the ocean. The amount of recycling is a key control on the amount of total phosphorus in the ocean, which in turn supports life.

Buick explained: "Every gardener knows that their plants grow only small and scraggly without phosphate fertilizer. The same applies for photosynthetic life in the oceans, where the phosphate 'fertilizer' comes largely from phosphorus liberated by the degradation of dead plankton."

But all of this requires oxygen. In today's oxygen-rich oceans, nearly all phosphorus gets recycled in this way and little falls to the ocean floor. Several billion years ago, in the Precambrian era, however, there was little or no oxygen in the environment.

"There are some alternatives to oxygen that certain bacteria could use, said co-author Stüeken. "Some bacteria can digest food using sulfate. Others use iron oxides." Sulfate, she said, was the most important control on phosphorus recycling in the Precambrian era.

"Our analysis shows that these alternative pathways were the dominant route of phosphorus recycling in the Precambrian, when oxygen was very low," Stüeken said. "However, they are much less effective than digestion with oxygen, meaning that only a smaller amount of biomass could be digested. As a consequence, much less phosphorus would have been recycled, and therefore total biological productivity would have been suppressed relative to today."

Kipp likened early Earth's low-oxygen ocean to a kind of "canned" environment, with oxygen sealed out: "It's a closed system. If you go back to the early Precambrian oceans, there's not very much going on in terms of biological activity."

Stüeken noted that volcanoes were the biggest source of sulfate in the Precambrian, unlike now, and so they were necessary for sustaining a significant biosphere by enabling phosphorus recycling.

In fact, minus such volcanic sulfate, Stüeken said, Earth's biosphere would have been very small, and may not have survived over billions of years. The findings, then, illustrate "how strongly life is tied to fundamental geological processes such as volcanism on the early Earth," she said.

Kipp and Stüeken's modeling may have implications as well for the search for life beyond Earth.

Astronomers will use upcoming ground- and space-based telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2019, to look for the impact of a marine biosphere, as Earth has, on a planet's atmosphere. But low phosphorus, the researchers say, could cause an inhabited world to appear uninhabited -- making a sort of "false negative."

Kipp said, "If there is less life -- basically, less photosynthetic output -- it's harder to accumulate atmospheric oxygen than if you had modern phosphorus levels and production rates. This could mean that some planets might appear to be uninhabited due to their lack of oxygen, but in reality they have biospheres that are limited in extent due to low phosphorus availability.

"These 'false negatives' are one of the biggest challenges facing us in the search for life elsewhere," said Victoria Meadows, UW astronomy professor and principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Virtual Planetary Laboratory, based at the UW.

"But research on early Earth's environments increases our chance of success by revealing processes and planetary properties that guide our search for life on nearby exoplanets."

###

The work was funded by grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

For more information, contact Kipp at kipp@uw.edu, Buick at 206-543-1913 or buick@ess.washington.edu or Stüeken at ees4@st-andrews.ac.uk.

NASA Exobiology grant NNX16AI37G to Prof. Buick.

Media Contact

Peter Kelley
kellep@uw.edu
206-543-2580

 @UW

http://www.washington.edu/news/ 

Peter Kelley | EurekAlert!

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Dark ocean bacteria discovered to play large role in carbon capture
28.11.2017 | Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

nachricht Mysterious deep-Earth seismic signature explained
27.11.2017 | Carnegie Institution for Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Quantum internet goes hybrid

In a recent study, published in Nature, ICFO researchers Nicolas Maring, Pau Farrera, Dr. Kutlu Kutluer, Dr. Margherita Mazzera, and Dr. Georg Heinze led by ICREA Prof. Hugues de Riedmatten, have achieved an elementary "hybrid" quantum network link and demonstrated for the first time photonic quantum communication between two very distinct quantum nodes placed in different laboratories, using a single photon as information carrier.

Today, quantum information networks are ramping up to become a disruptive technology that will provide radically new capabilities for information processing...

Im Focus: New proton record: Researchers measure magnetic moment with greatest possible precision

High-precision measurement of the g-factor eleven times more precise than before / Results indicate a strong similarity between protons and antiprotons

The magnetic moment of an individual proton is inconceivably small, but can still be quantified. The basis for undertaking this measurement was laid over ten...

Im Focus: Frictional Heat Powers Hydrothermal Activity on Enceladus

Computer simulation shows how the icy moon heats water in a porous rock core

Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Quantum systems correct themselves

28.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Less life: Limited phosphorus recycling suppressed early Earth's biosphere

28.11.2017 | Earth Sciences

Maize pest exploits plant defense compounds to protect itself

28.11.2017 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>