Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Billions of years ago, microbes were key in developing modern nitrogen cycle

23.02.2009
As the world marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, there is much focus on evolution in animals and plants. But new research shows that for the countless billions of tiniest creatures – microbes – large-scale evolution was completed 2.5 billion years ago.

"For microbes, it appears that almost all of their major evolution took place before we have any record of them, way back in the dark mists of prehistory," said Roger Buick, a University of Washington paleontologist and astrobiologist.

All living organisms need nitrogen, a basic component of amino acids and proteins. But for atmospheric nitrogen to be usable, it must be "fixed," or converted to a biologically useful form. Some microbes turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a form in which the nitrogen can be easily absorbed by other organisms.

But the new research shows that about 2.5 billion years ago some microbes evolved that could carry the process a step further, adding oxygen to the ammonia to produce nitrate, which also can be used by organisms. That was the beginning of what today is known as the aerobic nitrogen cycle.

The microbes that accomplished that feat are on the last, or terminal, branches of the bacteria and archaea domains of the so-called tree of life, and they are the only microbes capable of carrying out the step of adding oxygen to ammonia.

The fact that they are on those terminal branches indicates that large-scale evolution of bacteria and archaea was complete about 2.5 billion years ago, Buick said.

"Countless bacteria and archaea species have evolved since then, but the major branches have held," said Buick, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences.

He is the corresponding author of the research, which appears in the Feb. 20 edition of Science. Lead author is Jessica Garvin, a UW Earth and space sciences graduate student. Other authors are Ariel Anbar and Gail Arnold of Arizona State University and Alan Jay Kaufman of the University of Maryland. The work was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The scientists examined material from a half-mile-deep core drilled in the Pilbara region of northwest Australia. They looked specifically at a section of shale from 300 to 650 feet deep, deposited 2.5 billion years ago, and found telltale isotope signatures created in the process of denitrification, the removal of oxygen from nitrate.

If denitrification was occurring, then nitrification – the addition of oxygen to ammonia to form nitrate – also must have been taking place, Buick said. That makes the find the earliest solid evidence for the beginning of the aerobic nitrogen cycle.

"What this shale deposit has done is record the onset of the modern nitrogen cycle," he said. "This was a life-giving nutrient then and remains so today. That's why you put nitrogen fertilizer on your tomato plants, for example."

The discovery gives clues about when and how the Earth's atmosphere became oxygen rich, Buick believes.

Geochemical examination of stratigraphic samples from the core indicates that atmospheric oxygen rose in a temporary "whiff" about 2.5 billion years ago. The whiff lasted long enough to be recorded in the nitrogen isotope record, then oxygen dropped back to very low levels before the atmosphere became permanently oxygenated about 2.3 billion years ago.

It is unclear why the oxygen level declined following the temporary increase. It could have been that the oxygen was depleted rapidly as it reacted with chemicals and minerals that had not been exposed to oxygen previously, Buick said. Or something could have halted the photosynthesis that produced the oxygen in the first place.

But it seems clear, he said, that the tiniest creatures played a crucial role in completing the nitrogen cycle that life depends on today.

"All microbes are amazing chemists compared to us. We're really very boring, metabolically," Buick said.

"To understand early evolution of life, we have to know how organisms were nourished and how they evolved. This work helps us on both of those counts," he said.

Vince Stricherz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.washington.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht During HIV infection, antibody can block B cells from fighting pathogens
14.08.2018 | NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

nachricht First study on physical properties of giant cancer cells may inform new treatments
14.08.2018 | Brown University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

Im Focus: The “TRiC” to folding actin

Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.

Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...

Im Focus: Lining up surprising behaviors of superconductor with one of the world's strongest magnets

Scientists have discovered that the electrical resistance of a copper-oxide compound depends on the magnetic field in a very unusual way -- a finding that could help direct the search for materials that can perfectly conduct electricity at room temperatur

What happens when really powerful magnets--capable of producing magnetic fields nearly two million times stronger than Earth's--are applied to materials that...

Im Focus: World record: Fastest 3-D tomographic images at BESSY II

The quality of materials often depends on the manufacturing process. In casting and welding, for example, the rate at which melts solidify and the resulting microstructure of the alloy is important. With metallic foams as well, it depends on exactly how the foaming process takes place. To understand these processes fully requires fast sensing capability. The fastest 3D tomographic images to date have now been achieved at the BESSY II X-ray source operated by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin.

Dr. Francisco Garcia-Moreno and his team have designed a turntable that rotates ultra-stably about its axis at a constant rotational speed. This really depends...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

2018 Work Research Conference

25.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

'Building up' stretchable electronics to be as multipurpose as your smartphone

14.08.2018 | Information Technology

During HIV infection, antibody can block B cells from fighting pathogens

14.08.2018 | Life Sciences

First study on physical properties of giant cancer cells may inform new treatments

14.08.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>