Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Low oxygen and molybdenum in ancient oceans delayed evolution of life by 2 billion years

28.03.2008
UC Riverside-led study tracked biogeochemical signatures preserved in ancient sedimentary rocks to establish nature and timing of oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere

A deficiency of oxygen and the heavy metal molybdenum in the ancient deep ocean may have delayed the evolution of animal life on Earth by nearly two billion years, a study led by UC Riverside biogeochemists has found.

The researchers arrived at their result by tracking molybdenum in black shales, which are a kind of sedimentary rock rich in organic matter and usually found in the deep ocean. Molybdenum is a key micronutrient for life and serves as a proxy for oceanic and atmospheric oxygen amounts.

Study results appear in the March 27 issue of Nature.

Following the initial rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen was transferred to the surface ocean to support oxygen-demanding microorganims. Yet the diversity of these single-celled life forms remained low, and their multicellular ancestors, the animals, did not appear until about 600 million years ago, explained Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences and one of the study’s authors.

Suspecting that deficiencies in oxygen and molybdenum might explain this evolutionary lag, Lyons and his colleagues measured abundances of molybdenum in ancient marine sediments over time to estimate how much of the metal had been dissolved in the seawater in which the sediments formed.

The researchers found significant, firsthand evidence for a molybdenum-depleted ocean relative to the high levels measured in modern, oxygen-rich seawater.

“These molybdenum depletions may have retarded the development of complex life such as animals for almost two billion years of Earth history,” Lyons said. “The amount of molybdenum in the ocean probably played a major role in the development of early life. As in the case of iron today, molybdenum can be thought of as a life-affirming micronutrient that regulates the biological cycling of nitrogen in the ocean.

“At the same time, molybdenum’s low abundance in the early ocean tracks the global extent of oxygen-poor seawater and implies that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was still low.

“Knowing the amount of oxygen in the early ocean is important for many reasons, including a refined understanding of how and when appreciable oxygen first began to accumulate in the atmosphere,” Lyons said. “These steps in oxygenation are what gave rise ultimately to the first animals almost 600 million years ago – just the last tenth or so of Earth history.”

Earth’s oxygenation

For animal life to commence, survive and eventually expand on Earth, a threshold amount of oxygen – estimated to be on the order of 1 to 10 percent of present atmospheric levels of oxygen – was needed.

Past research has shown that Earth’s oxygenation occurred in two major steps:

The first step, around 2.4 billion years ago, took place as the ocean transitioned to a state where only the surface ocean was oxygenated by photosynthesizing bacteria, while the deep ocean was relatively oxygen-free.

The second step, around 600 million years ago, marked the occasion when the entire ocean became fully oxygenated through a process not yet fully understood.

“We wanted to know what the state of the ocean was between the two steps,” said Clinton Scott, a graduate student working in Lyons’s lab and the first author of the research paper. “By tracking molybdenum in shales rich in organic matter, we found the deep ocean remained oxygen- and molybdenum-deficient after the first step. This condition may have had a negative impact on the evolution of early eukaryotes, our single-celled ancestors. The molybdenum record also tells us that the deep ocean was already fully oxygenated by around 550 million years ago.”

According to Scott, the timing of the oxygenation steps suggests that significant events in Earth history are related. Scientists have long speculated that the evolution of the first animals was linked somehow to the so-called Snowball Earth hypothesis, which posits that the Earth was covered from pole to pole in a thick sheet of ice for millions of years at a time. “The second oxygenation step took place not long after the last Snowball Earth episode ended around 600 million years ago,” Scott said. “So one question is: Did this global glaciation play a role in the increasing abundance of oxygen which, in turn, enabled the evolution of animals?”

Scott and Lyons were joined in the research by A. Bekker of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC; Y. Shen of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada; S.W. Poulton of Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom; X. Chu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; and A.D. Anbar of Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

The research was supported by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation Division of Earth Sciences and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

More about molybdenum as a proxy for ocean chemistry

Molybdenum, a metal abundant in the ocean today but less so at times in the past, is an excellent tracer of ancient chemistry for two reasons. First, the primary source of molybdenum to the ocean is oxidative weathering of continental crust, requiring oxygen in the atmosphere. Second, molybdenum is removed primarily in marine sediments where oxygen is absent and sulfide is abundant. Thus the enrichment of molybdenum in ancient organic-rich shales requires oxygen in the atmosphere but high sulfur and very low or no oxygen in the deep ocean. This combination is relatively rare today but may have been common when oxygen was less abundant in the earlier atmosphere.

When oxygen is available in the atmosphere, the amount of dissolved molybdenum in seawater is determined by the extent of hydrogen-sulfide-containing sediments and bottom waters (the colder, more isolated, lowermost layer of ocean water). Where sulfidic environments are widespread, the pool of molybdenum remaining in seawater is small, growing as the sulfidic environments shrink. The amount of molybdenum in the seawater is reflected in the magnitude of molybdenum enrichment in shales deposited in the deep ocean.

The UCR-led team of researchers estimated the size of the oceanic reservoir, and thus the extent of sulfidic bottom waters and sediments, based on the concentration of molybdenum in ancient black shales. They did so by dissolving the samples in a cocktail of acids and analyzing the dissolved rock for concentration using a mass spectrometer. The amount of this metal in the shales tracks the oxygen state of the early ocean and atmosphere and also points to the varying abundance of this essential ingredient of life. Molybdenum limitations may have delayed the development of eukaryotes, including the first animals, our earliest multicellular cousins.

The University of California, Riverside 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 17,000 is projected to grow to 21,000 students by 2010. The campus is planning a medical school and already has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Graduate Center. With an annual statewide economic impact of nearly $1 billion, UCR is actively shaping the region's future. To learn more, visit www.ucr.edu or call (951) UCR-NEWS.

Iqbal Pittalwala | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ucr.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht New insight into glaciers regulating global silicon cycling
14.08.2019 | University of Bristol

nachricht Coastal marine sediments contribute to the formation of greenhouse gases
31.07.2019 | Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: A miniature stretchable pump for the next generation of soft robots

Soft robots have a distinct advantage over their rigid forebears: they can adapt to complex environments, handle fragile objects and interact safely with humans. Made from silicone, rubber or other stretchable polymers, they are ideal for use in rehabilitation exoskeletons and robotic clothing. Soft bio-inspired robots could one day be deployed to explore remote or dangerous environments.

Most soft robots are actuated by rigid, noisy pumps that push fluids into the machines' moving parts. Because they are connected to these bulky pumps by tubes,...

Im Focus: Vehicle Emissions: New sensor technology to improve air quality in cities

Researchers at TU Graz are working together with European partners on new possibilities of measuring vehicle emissions.

Today, air pollution is one of the biggest challenges facing European cities. As part of the Horizon 2020 research project CARES (City Air Remote Emission...

Im Focus: Self healing robots that "feel pain"

Over the next three years, researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris) and Empa will be working together with the Dutch Polymer manufacturer SupraPolix on the next generation of robots: (soft) robots that ‘feel pain’ and heal themselves. The partners can count on 3 million Euro in support from the European Commission.

Soon robots will not only be found in factories and laboratories, but will be assisting us in our immediate environment. They will help us in the household, to...

Im Focus: Scientists create the world's thinnest gold

Scientists at the University of Leeds have created a new form of gold which is just two atoms thick - the thinnest unsupported gold ever created.

The researchers measured the thickness of the gold to be 0.47 nanometres - that is one million times thinner than a human finger nail. The material is regarded...

Im Focus: Study on attosecond timescale casts new light on electron dynamics in transition metals

An international team of scientists involving the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) in Hamburg has unraveled the light-induced electron-localization dynamics in transition metals at the attosecond timescale. The team investigated for the first time the many-body electron dynamics in transition metals before thermalization sets in. Their work has now appeared in Nature Physics.

The researchers from ETH Zurich (Switzerland), the MPSD (Germany), the Center for Computational Sciences of University of Tsukuba (Japan) and the Center for...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

The power of thought – the key to success: CYBATHLON BCI Series 2019

16.08.2019 | Event News

4th Hybrid Materials and Structures 2020 28 - 29 April 2020, Karlsruhe, Germany

14.08.2019 | Event News

What will the digital city of the future look like? City Science Summit on 1st and 2nd October 2019 in Hamburg

12.08.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Stanford builds a heat shield just 10 atoms thick to protect electronic devices

19.08.2019 | Information Technology

Researchers demonstrate three-dimensional quantum hall effect for the first time

19.08.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

Catalysts for climate protection

19.08.2019 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>