Multicelled fossils from the 1 Ga old Torridonian of Scotland

Beinn Alligin and Loch Torridon, Northwest Highlands of Scotland. The hills are formed by Torridonian terrestrial sediments (credit: Stefan Krause, Wikimedia Commons)

Palaeobiologists interested in the origin of animals have generally focussed on sedimentary rocks from southern China: specifically those of the 635 to 550 Ma Doushantuo Formation. Phosphorus-rich nodules in those marine sediments have yielded tiny spheroids whose structure suggests that they are fossil embryos of some unspecified eukaryote. The Doushantuo Formation lies on top of rocks associated with the Marinoan episode of global glaciation during the Neoproterozoic; a feature which suggested that the evolutionary leap from single- to multi-celled eukaryotes was associated with environmental changes associated with Snowball Earth events. In a forthcoming issue of Current Biology that view will be challenged and the origin of multicellular life pushed back to around 1 billion years ago (Strother, P.K. et al. 2021. A possible billion-year-old holozoan with differentiated multicellularity. Current Biology, v. 31, p. 1-8; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.051). Spherical fossils of that age have been teased out of phosphatic nodules deposited in lacustrine sediments from the lower part of the Mesoproterozoic Torridonian Group of the Northwest Highlands of Scotland.

The internal structure of the fossils has been preserved in exquisite detail. Not only are cells packed together in their interiors, but some reveal an outer layer of larger sausage-shaped cells. So, cell differentiation had taken place in the original organisms, whereas such features are not visible in the Doushantuo ‘embryos’. A few of the central cells show dark, organic spots that may be remains of theirnucleii. Whatever these multicellular spheres may have developed into, the morphology of the Torridonian fossils is consistent with a transition from single-celled holozoans to the dominant metazoans of the Phanerozoic; i.e. the stem of later animals. The younger, Chinese fossils that are reputed to be embryos cannot be distinguished from multicellular algae (see: Excitement over early animals dampened, January 2012)

Photomicrograph of Bicellum brazieiri: scale bar = 10μm; arrows point to dark spots that may be cell nuclei (credit: Charles Wellman, Sheffield University)

Interestingly, the Torridonian Group is exclusively terrestrial in origin, being dominated by sediments deposited in the alluvial plains of huge braided streams that eventually buried a rugged landscape eroded from Archaean high-grade metamorphic rocks. Thus the environment would have been continually in contact with the atmosphere and thus oxygen that is vital for eukaryote life forms. The age of the fossils also rings a bell: a molecular clock based on the genomics of all groups of animals alive today hints at around 900-1000 Ma for the emergence of the basic body plan. Because its host rocks are about that age, could Bicellum brazier be the Common Ancestor of all modern animals? That would be a nice tribute to the second author, Martin Brazier (deceased) of Oxford University, who sought signs of the most ancient life for much of his career.

See also:Billion-year-old fossil reveals missing link in the evolution of animals (Press release, Sheffield University; 29 April 2021)

The DNA of some old mammoths

The only positive outcome of the thawing of permafrost is that it exposes remains of ancient animals in a virtually intact state, most famously those of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). But not so well-preserved that anyone could be induced to feast on its thawed-out meat. Tales of select groups being served mammoth at banquets are almost certainly apocryphal, but several have tasted one, and found that the meat smelled rotten and tasted awful. Mammoth bones, being so large, are regularly found and most museums in the Northern Hemisphere display their enormous teeth. DNA from three species of these extinct elephants has been sequenced – North American and European woolly mammoths and the North American Columbian mammoth that thrived on the more temperate central plains. But they lived about 12 to 100 thousand years ago. Now genetic data are available from three molar teeth found in permafrost in the Chukochya river basin in northern Siberia. (van der Valk, T. and 21 others 2021. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nature v.591, p. 265–269; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03224-9).

Wooly mammoth tooth offered for sale at Christie’s in 2015, which fetched £2750 (Credit: Christie’s on-line archives)

The mammoth molars have been dated at 0.68, 1.0 and 1.2 Ma (conservative estimates), far older than a horse dated between 560 and 780 ka that yielded DNA several years back. The sheer mass of the teeth and the fact that they had been preserved in frozen soil shielded genetic material from complete breakdown, but it was nonetheless heavily degraded to fragments no more than 50 base pairs long. This presented a major challenge to the team of palaeogeneticists’ reconstruction of the three mammoths’ genomes. Comparing the genomes with those of far younger woolly mammoths and their closest living relatives, Indian elephants, reveals that the ancient beasts were cold-adapted and probably had woolly coats. Two of the genomes suggest direct ancestry to both later woolly mammoths, whereas the third – the oldest – can  be linked to the enormous Columbian mammoth (M. columbi) that lived on mid-American grasslands during the Late Pleistocene. During glacial maxima when sea levels were ~100 m lower than at present Siberian faunas could easily have migrated into and colonised the Americas, using the Beringia land bridge across the Bering Strait. An early migration by the oldest Siberian mammoth could have given rise to the Columbian mammoth, later crossings to the American woollies. In fact it seems that genetic strands from the two younger Siberian mammoths also entered the DNA of M. columbi at some stage in its evolution.

Interesting as these revelations are about Arctic ice-age megafaunas, finding human remains that predate a few 10’s of ka in permafrost is unlikely. Modern humans and  Neanderthals are known to have migrated through Arctic Siberia, and perhaps Denisovans did too. Some individuals may have been unfortunate enough to have fallen into boggy ground that froze to form permafrost. However, there is no evidence for older human species having moved north of about 40°N since the first Africans entered 1.8 Ma ago. In any case, without the protection of massive bones, human DNA would probably have degraded more quickly than did that of these old mammoths.

See also: Roca, A.L. 2021. Million-year-old DNA provides a glimpse of mammoth evolution. Nature, v. 591, p. 208-209; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-00348-w; Black, R. 2021. Oldest DNA sequenced yet comes from million-year-old mammoths (Smithsonian Magazine, 17 February, 2021)

News from the Chicxulub drilling project

Artist’s impression of an asteroid slamming into the shallow sea off the present Yucatán Peninsula about 65 Ma ago (Credit: Donald E. Davis of NASA)

Aimed at resolving the impact versus volcanism debate about the causes of the K-Pg mass extinction, the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) began drilling into the focus of the Chicxulub impact structure off the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico in 2016. The project recovered 830 m of rock core, of which  about 140 cm contained the boundary between tsunami deposits and the post-impact marine limestones of Danian Age (basal Palaeogene); as close as one can get to the moment when the asteroid hit the sea floor. That an impact close to the start of the Danian had taken place was first discovered from abnormally high concentrations of the platinum-group metal iridium (Ir), shocked mineral grains and glass spherules, among other anomalous materials, in 350 marine and terrestrial sections across the globe. If the Chicxulub crater contained similar features to these ‘smoking guns’ then the link might seem to be done and dusted. A report on the crucial few centimetres from the Chicxulub drill core shows this to be the case (Goderis, S. and 32 others 2021. Globally distributed iridium layer preserved within the Chicxulub impact structure. Science Advances, v. 9, article eabe3647; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe3647).

Yet the boundary layer at Chicxulub could not have been emplaced at the instant of impact. The gigantic power involved would have flung debris outwards, including seawater as well as the rocks that were once at considerable depth below the seabed. Much in the manner of a stone falling into a pond molten crust would have rebounded from the initial strike to form an axial peak and a ringed basin. Likewise huge tsunamis would have rolled away from the impact, then to return and fill the new basin, perhaps several times. Some of the ejected debris would have reached low orbit in the form of pulverised rock and asteroid to remain there for a while before completely falling back to Earth. The core includes about 130 m of once partly molten debris (suevite) above more-or-less intact granitic basement. Only the top 3.5 m show signs of having been deposited in water; fine-grained, well-sorted and laminated suevite containing clasts of once molten material and even late-Cretaceous foraminifera tests, formed probably by the refilling of the impact basin during the backflow of tusunamis. A mere 3 cm of silt and clay just below marine limestones has yielded the characteristic high Ir and nickel concentrations. This Ir-rich layer also contains the earliest Palaeocene foraminifera.

Grains in the Ir-rich layer were the last to settle, the main question being ‘How long after the impact took place did that happen?’ Being very fine they are estimated to have fallen-out from suspension and circulation in the atmosphere over a period of up to a few decades. Coarser material below them would have taken no longer than a few weeks to years. Yet these estimates are based mainly on Stokes’ law governing particles of different sizes falling through a viscous fluid. Taking an empirical view based on actual rates of clay sedimentation in the ocean (~5 mm per thousand years) the Ir-rich layer may have been deposited over 6000 years. That is hardly the ‘instant of the impact’. But the timing does say something interesting about the return of life to the seas; in geological terms it was swift, if the forams are anything to go by. Since the tsunamis swept onto and drained the surrounding land masses a great deal of nutrient would have ended up in the sea awaiting organisms at the bottom of the food chain. Biomarker chemicals and trace fossils in the Ir-rich layer suggest  thriving bacterial communities, with forams, crustacea and larval fish.

The authors conclude ‘The clear association of the Ir anomaly within the Chicxulub impact structure and the recorded biotic response confirms the direct relationship between the impact event and the K-Pg mass extinction’. Whether that is accepted by those geoscientists with their eyes on the Deccan Trap hypothesis is not so certain …

Magnetic reversal and demise of the Neanderthals?

A rumour emerged last week that the Neanderthals met their end as one consequence of an extraterrestrial, possibly even extragalactic influence. Curiously, it stems from a recent discovery in New Zealand, where of course Neanderthals never set foot and nor did anatomically modern humans, the ancestors of Maori people, until a mere 800 years ago. It started with an ancient log from a kauri tree (Agathis australis), a species that Maoris revere. Found in excavations of boggy ground, the log weighed about 60 tons, so it was a valuable commodity, especially as it is illegal to fell living kauri trees. The wood is unaffected by burial and insect attack, has a regular grain and colour throughout, so is ideal for monumental Maori sculpture. Such swamp kauri also preserves their own life history in annual growth rings, and the log in question has 1700 of them. Using growth rings to chart climate variation gives the most detailed records of the recent past, provided the wood can be dated. Matching growth ring records from several trees of different ages is key to charting local climate with annual precision over several millennia.

An ancient kauri tree log recovered by swampland excavations in New Zealand. (Credit: Jonathan Palmer, in Voosen 2021)

Radiocarbon dating indicates that this particular kauri tree was growing around 42 thousand years ago. That is close to the upper limit for using 14C concentration in organic matter to determine age because the isotope has a short half-life (5730 years). In this case samples of the log would contain only about 0.7 % of its original complement of radioactive carbon. Cosmic rays generate 14C when they hit nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere and it enters COand thus the carbon cycle. Carbon dioxide taken up by photosynthesis to contribute carbon to plants contains only about one part per trillion of 14C. Consequently wood as ancient as that in the kauri log contains almost vanishingly small amounts, yet it can still be measured using mass spectrometry to yield an accurate radiometric age.

The particularly interesting thing about the 42 ka date is that it coincides with the timing of the last reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, known as the Laschamps event. The kauri tree bears detailed witness through its growth rings to the environmental effects of a decrease in that field to almost zero as the poles flipped. The bulk of cosmic rays are normally deflected away from the Earth by the geomagnetic field, but during a reversal a great many more pass through the atmosphere, the most energetic reaching the surface and the biosphere. The kauri growth rings record fluctuations in the generation of 14C by their passage and thereby the geomagnetic field strength, which was only 6% of normal levels from 42.3 to 41.6 ka (Cooper, A. and 32 others  2021. A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 811-818; DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8677). This coincided with an unrelated succession of periods of low solar activity and a reduced solar ‘wind’, which also provides some cosmic-rayprotection when activity is at normal levels; a ‘double whammy’. One consequence would have been destruction of stratospheric ozone by cosmic rays and thus increased ultraviolet exposure at ground level.

Combined with the highly precise growth-ring dating, the climatic changes over the 1700 year lifetime of the kauri tree can be linked to other records of environmental change. These include glacial ice- and lake-bed cores together with stalactite layers. Apparently, the Laschamps geomagnetic reversal coincided with abrupt shifts in wind belts and precipitation, perhaps triggering major droughts in the southern continents. Highly plausible, but some of the other speculations are less certain. For instance, some time around 42 ka, but far from well-established, Australia’s marsupial megafauna experienced major extinctions, the Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record and modern humans started decorating caves in Europe (20 ka after they did in Indonesia). In fact, speculation becomes somewhat silly, with suggestions that early Europeans went to live in caves because of increased exposure to UV (they knew, did they, while Neanderthals didn’t?), their painting and, by implication, their entire culture shifting through the shock and awe of mighty displays of the aurora borealis. Just because the number 42 is (or was), according to the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘the answer to life, the universe and everything’, the authors tag the episode as the ‘Adams Event’. In their summary for The Conversation they include an animation with a quintessential Stephen Fry narrative, which Earth-logs readers can judge for themselves. Perhaps ‘Lockdown Trauma’ has a lot more to answer for, other than upsurges in Zoom conferences, knitting and gourmet experimentation …

See also: Voosen, P. 2021. Kauri trees mark magnetic flip 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 766; DOI: 10.1126/science.371.6531.766

Worth a read: Genes that prepared fish to invade the land

Elizabeth Pennisi comments on three comparative studies of the genetics of modern fish and terrestrial tetrapods in the latest online issue of Science News. Apparently some fish genes were, perhaps fortuitously, ‘multipurpose’. They may have been exploited during the Devonian colonisation of land to help evolution of limbs, lungs and aspects of the nervous system to adapt shallow-water fishes to climb out onto dry land. (Pennisi, E. 2021. Fish had the genes to adapt to life on land—while they were still swimming the seas. Science, News 10 February 2021; DOI: 10.1126/science.abg9265).

How flowering plants may have regulated atmospheric oxygen

Ultimately, the source of free oxygen in the Earth System is photosynthesis, but that is the result of a chemical balance in the biosphere and hydrosphere that operates at the surface and just beneath it in sediments. Burial of dead organic carbon in sedimentary rocks allows free oxygen to accumulate whereas weathering and oxidation of that carbon, largely to CO2, tends to counteract oxygen build-up. The balance is reflected in the current proportion of 21% oxygen in the atmosphere. Yet in the past oxygen levels have been much higher. During the Carboniferous and Permian periods it rose dramatically to an all-time high of 35% in the late Permian (about 250 Ma ago). This is famously reflected in fossils of giant dragonflies and other insects from the later part of the Palaeozoic Era.  Insects breathe passively by tiny tubes (trachea) through whose walls oxygen diffuses, unlike active-breathing quadrupeds that drive air into lung alveoli to dissolve O2 directly in blood. Insect size is thus limited by the oxygen content of air; to grow wing spans of up to 2 metres a modern dragon fly’s body would consist only of trachea with no room for gut; it would starve.

Woman holding a reconstructed Late Carboniferous dragonfly (Namurotypus sippeli)

During the early Mesozoic oxygen fell rapidly to around 15% during the Triassic then rose through the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods to about 30%, only to fall again to present levels during the Cenozoic Era. Incidentally, the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (the K-Pg boundary event) was marked in the marine sedimentary record by unusually high amounts of charcoal. That is evidence for the Chixculub impact being accompanied by global wild fires that a high-oxygen atmosphere would have encouraged. The high oxygen levels of the Cretaceous marked the emergence of modern flowering plants – the angiosperms. Six British geoscientists have analysed the possible influence on the Earth System of this new and eventually dominant component of the terrestrial biosphere. (Belcher, C.M. et al. The rise of angiosperms strengthened fire feedbacks and improved the regulation of atmospheric oxygenNature Communications, v. 12, article 503; DOI 10.1038/s41467-020-20772-2)

The episodic occurrence of charcoal in sedimentary rocks bears witness to wildfires having affected terrestrial ecosystems since the decisive colonisation of the land by plants at the start of the Devonian 420 Ma ago. Fire and vegetation have since gone hand in hand, and the evolution of land plants has partly been through adaptations to burning. For instance the cones of some conifer species open only during wildfires to shed seeds following burning. Some angiosperm seeds, such as those of eucalyptus, germinate only after being subject to fire . The nature of wildfires varies according to particular ecosystems: needle-like foliage burns differently from angiosperm leaves; grassland fires differ from those in forests and so on. Massive fires on the Earth’s surface are not inevitable, however. Evidence for wildfires is absent during those times when the atmosphere’s oxygen content has dipped below an estimated 16%. The current oxygen level encourages fires in dry forest during drought, as those of Victoria in Australia and California in the US during 2020 amply demonstrated. It is possible that with oxygen above 25% dry forest would not regenerate without burning in the next dry season. Wet forest, as in Brazil and Indonesia, can burn under present conditions but only if set alight deliberately. Evidence of a global firestorm after the K-Pg extinction implies that tropical rain forest burns easily when oxygen is above 30%. So, how come the dominant flora of Earth’s huge tropical forests – the flowering angiosperms – evolved and hung on when conditions were ripe for them to burn on a massive scale?

Early angiosperms had small leaves suggesting small stature and growth in stands of open woodland [perhaps shrubberies] that favoured the fire protection of wetlands. ‘Weedy’ plants regenerate and reach maturity more quickly than do those species that are destined to produce tall trees. With endemic wildfires, tree-sized plants – e.g. the gymnosperms of the Mesozoic – cannot attain maturity by growing above the height of flames. Diminutive early angiosperms in a forest understory would probably outcompete their more ancient companions.  Yet to become the mighty trees of later rain forests angiosperms must somehow have regulated atmospheric oxygen so that it declined well below the level where wet forest is ravaged by natural wild fires. The oldest evidence for angiosperm rain forest dates to 59 Ma, when perhaps more primitive tropical trees had been almost wiped-out by wildfires. Did angiosperms also encourage wildfires, that consumed oxygen on a massive scale, as well as evolving to resist their affects on plant growth? Claire Belcher et al. suggest that they did, through series of evolutionary steps. Key to their stabilising oxygen levels at around 21%, the authors allege, was angiosperms’ suppression of weathering of phosphorus from rocks and/or transfer of that major nutrient from the land to the oceans. On land nitrogen is the most important nutrient for biomass, whereas phosphorus is the limiting factor in the ocean. Its reduction by angiosperm dominance on land thereby reduces carbon burial in ocean sediments. In a very roundabout way, therefore, angiosperms control the key factor in allowing atmospheric build-up of oxygen; by encouraging mass burning and suppressing carbon burial.  Today, about 84 percent of wildfires are started by anthropogenic activities. As yet we have little, if any, idea of how such disruption of the natural flora-fire system is going to affect future ecosystems. The ‘Pyrocene’ may be an outcome of the ‘Anthropocene’ …

Origin of life: some news

For self-replicating cells to form there are two essential precursors: water and simple compounds based on the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON). Hydrogen is not a problem, being by far the most abundant element in the universe. Carbon, oxygen and nitrogen form in the cores of stars through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium. These elemental building blocks need to be delivered through supernova explosions, ultimately to where water can exist in liquid form to undergo reactions that culminate in living cells. That is only possible on solid bodies that lie at just the right distance from a star to support average surface temperatures that are between the freezing and boiling points of water. Most important is that such a planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ has sufficient mass for its gravity to retain water. Surface water evaporates to some extent to contribute vapour to the atmosphere. Exposed to ultraviolet radiation H2O vapour dissociates into molecular hydrogen and water, which can be lost to space if a planet’s escape velocity is less than the thermal vibration of such gas molecules. Such photo-dissociation and diffusion into outer space may have caused Mars to lose more hydrogen in this way than oxygen, to leave its surface dry but rich in reddish iron oxides.

Despite liquid water being essential for the origin of planetary life it is a mixed blessing for key molecules that support biology. This ‘water paradox’ stems from water molecules attacking and breaking the chemical connections that string together the complex chains of proteins and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA). Living cells resolve the paradox by limiting the circulation of liquid water within them by being largely filled with a gel that holds the key molecules together, rather than being bags of water as has been commonly imagined. That notion stemmed from the idea of a ‘primordial soup’, popularised by Darwin and his early followers, which is now preserved in cells’ cytoplasm. That is now known to be wrong and, in any case, the chemistry simply would not work, either in a ‘warm, little pond’ or close to a deep sea hydrothermal vent, because the molecular chains would be broken as soon as they formed. Modern evolutionary biochemists suggest that much of the chemistry leading to living cells must have taken place in environments that were sometimes dry and sometimes wet; ephemeral puddles on land. Science journalist Michael Marshall has just published an easily read, open-source essay on this vexing yet vital issue in Nature (Marshall, M. 2020. The Water Paradox and the Origins of Life. Nature, v. 588, p. 210-213; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-03461-4). If you are interested, click on the link to read Marshall’s account of current origins-of-life research into the role of endlessly repeated wet-dry cycles on the early Earth’s surface. Fascinating reading as the experiments take the matter far beyond the spontaneous formation of the amino acid glycine found by Stanley Miller when he passed sparks through methane, ammonia and hydrogen in his famous 1953 experiment at the University of Chicago. Marshall was spurred to write in advance of NASA’s Perseverance Mission landing on Mars in February 2021. The Perseverance rover aims to test the new hypotheses in a series of lake sediments that appear to have been deposited by wet-dry cycles  in a small Martian impact crater (Jezero Crater) early in the planet’s history when surface water was present.

Crystals of hexamethylenetetramine (Credit: r/chemistry, Reddit)

That CHON and simple compounds made from them are aplenty in interstellar gas and dust clouds has been known since the development of means of analysing the light spectra from them. The organic chemistry of carbonaceous meteorites is also well known; they even smell of hydrocarbons. Accretion of these primitive materials during planet formation is fine as far as providing feedstock for life-forming processes on physically suitable planets. But how did CHON get from giant molecular clouds into such planetesimals. An odd-sounding organic compound – hexamethylenetetramine ((CH2)6N4), or HMT – formed industrially by combining formaldehyde (CH2O) and ammonia (NH3) – was initially synthesised in the late 19th century as an antiseptic to tackle UTIs and is now used as a solid fuel for lightweight camping stoves, as well as much else besides. HMT has a potentially interesting role to play in the origin of life.  Experiments aimed at investigating what happens when starlight and thermal radiation pervade interstellar gas clouds to interact with simple CHON molecules, such as ammonia, formaldehyde, methanol and water, yielded up to 60% by mass of HMT.

The structure of HMT is a sort of cage, so that crystals form large fluffy aggregates, instead of the gases from which it can be formed in deep space. Together with interstellar silicate dusts, such sail-like structures could accrete into planetesimals in nebular star nurseries under the influence of  gravity and light pressure. Geochemists from several Japanese institutions and NASA have, for the first time, found HMT in three carbonaceous chondrites, albeit at very low concentrations – parts per billion (Y. Oba et al. 2020. Extraterrestrial hexamethylenetetramine in meteorites — a precursor of prebiotic chemistry in the inner Solar SystemNature Communications, v. 11, article 6243; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20038-x). Once concentrated in planetesimals – the parents of meteorites when they are smashed by collisions – HMT can perform the useful chemical ‘trick’ of breaking down once again to very simple CHON compounds when warmed. At close quarters such organic precursors can engage in polymerising reactions whose end products could be the far more complex sugars and amino acid chains that are the characteristic CHON compounds of carbonaceous chondrites. Yasuhiro Oba and colleagues may have found the missing link between interstellar space, planet formation and the synthesis of life through the mechanisms that resolve the ‘water paradox’ outlined by Michael Marshall.

See also: Scientists Find Precursor of Prebiotic Chemistry in Three Meteorites (Sci-news, 8 December 2020.)


Up-to-date review of animals before the Cambrian ‘Explosion’

Artist’s impression of the Ediacaran Fauna (credit: Science)

Since I began this blog in 2000 one of my most regular topics concerns the animals of the latest Precambrian: the Ediacaran fauna. If you want to browse through the items use ‘Ediacaran’ in the Search Earth-logs box. New material and ideas about those precursors to modern life forms (and some that are still puzzling) appear on a regular basis. Science journalist Traci Watson has just summarised the latest developments in an essay for Nature. It is a nicely written and copiously illustrated piece with lots of links. Rather than precis her article, I suggest that you go straight to it, if the topic piques your interest.

(Watson, T. 2020. The bizarre species that are rewriting animal evolution. Nature, v. 586, p. 662-665; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-02985-z)

Photosynthesis, arsenic and a window on the Archaean world

At the very base of the biological pyramid life is far simpler than that which we can see.  It takes the form of single cells that lack a nucleus and propagate only by cloning: the prokaryotes as opposed to eukaryote life such as ourselves. It is almost certain that the first viable life on Earth was prokaryotic, though which of its two fundamental divisions – Archaea or Bacteria – came first is still debated. At present, most prokaryotes metabolise other organisms’ waste or dead remains: they are heterotrophs (from the Greek for ‘other nutrition’). But there are others that are primary producers getting their nutrition by themselves, exploiting the inorganic world in a variety of ways: the autotrophs. Biogeochemical evidence from the earliest sedimentary rocks suggests that, in the Archaean prokaryotic autotrophs were dominant, mainly exploiting chemical reactions to gain energy necessary for building carbohydrates. Some reduced sulfate ions to those of sulphide, others combined hydrogen with carbon dioxide to generate methane as a by-product. Sunlight being an abundant energy resource in near-surface water, a whole range of prokaryotes exploit its potential through photosynthesis. Under reducing conditions some photosynthesisers convert sulfur to sulfuric acid , yet others combine photosynthesis with chemo-autotrophy. Dissolved material capable of donating electrons – i.e. reducing agents – are exploited in photosynthesis: hydrogen, ferrous iron (Fe2+), reduced sulfur, nitrite, or some organic molecules. Without one group, which uses photosynthesis to convert CO2 and water to carbohydrates and oxygen, eukaryotes would never have arisen, for they depend on free oxygen. A transformation 2400 Ma ago marked a point in Earth history when oxygen first entered the atmosphere and shallow water (see: Massive event in the Precambrian carbon cycle; January, 2012), known as Great Oxygenation Event (GOE). It has been shown that the most likely sources of that excess oxygen were extensive bacterial mats in shallow water made of photosynthesising blue-green bacteria that produced the distinctive carbonate structures known as stromatolites. These had formed in Archaean sedimentary basins for 1.9 billion years. It has been generally assumed that blue-green bacteria had formed them too, before the oxygen that they produced overcame the reducing conditions that had generally prevailed before the GOE. But that may not have been the case …

Microbial mats made by purple sulfur bacteria in highly toxic spring water flowing into a salt-lake in northern Chile. (credit: Visscher et al. 2020; Fig 1c)

Prokaryotes are a versatile group and new types keep turning up as researchers explore all kinds of strange and extreme environments, for instance: hot springs; groundwater from kilometres below the surface and highly toxic waters. A recent surprise arose from the study of anoxic springs laden with dissolved salts, sulfide ions and arsenic that feed parts of hypersaline lakes in northern Chile (Visscher, P.T. and 14 others 2020. Modern arsenotrophic microbial mats provide an analogue for life in the anoxic ArcheanCommunications Earth & Environment, v. 1, article 24; DOI: 10.1038/s43247-020-00025-2). This is a decidedly extreme environment for life, as we know it, made more challenging by its high altitude exposure to high UV radiation. The springs’ beds are covered with bright-purple microbial mats. Interestingly the water’s arsenic concentration varies from high in winter to low in summer, suggesting that some process removes it, along with sulfur, according to light levels: almost certainly the growth and dormancy of mat-forming bacteria. Arsenic is an electron donor capable of participating in photosynthesis that doesn’t produce oxygen. The microbial mats do produce no oxygen whatever – uniquely for the modern Earth – but they do form carbonate crusts that look like stromatolites. The mats contain purple sulfur bacteria (PSBs) that are anaerobic photosynthesisers, which use sulfur, hydrogen and Fe2+ as electron donors. The seasonal changes in arsenic concentration match similar shifts in sulfur, suggesting that arsenic is also being used by the PSBs. Indeed they can, as the aio gene, which encodes for such an eventuality, is present in the genome of PSBs.

Pieter Visscher and his multinational co-authors argue for prokaryotes similar to modern PSBs having played a role in creating the stromatolites found in Archaean sedimentary rocks. Oxygen-poor, the Archaean atmosphere would have contained no ozone so that high-energy UV would have bathed the Earth’s surface and its oceans to a considerable depth. Moreover, arsenic is today removed from most surface water by adsorption on iron hydroxides, a product of modern oxidising conditions (see: Arsenic hazard on a global scale; May 2020): it would have been more abundant before the GOE. So the Atacama springs may be an appropriate micro-analogue for Archaean conditions, a hypothesis that the authors address with reference to the geochemistry of sedimentary rocks in Western Australia deposited in a late-Archaean evaporating lake. Stromatolites in the Tumbiana Formation show, according to the authors, definite evidence for sulfur and arsenic cycling similar to that in that Atacama springs. They also suggest that photosynthesising blue-green bacteria (cyanobacteria) may not have viable under such Archaean conditions while microbes with similar metabolism to PSBs probably were. The eventual appearance and rise of oxygen once cyanobacteria did evolve, perhaps in the late-Archaean, left PSBs and most other anaerobic microbes, to which oxygen spells death, as a minority faction trapped in what are became ‘extreme’ environments when long before they ‘ruled the roost’. It raises the question, ‘What if cyanobacteria had not evolved?’. A trite answer would be, ‘I would not be writing this and nor would you be reading it!’. But it is a question that can be properly applied to the issue of alien life beyond Earth, perhaps on Mars. Currently, attempts are being made to detect oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, as a ‘sure sign’ that life evolved and thrived there too. That may be a fruitless venture, because life happily thrived during Earth’s Archaean Eon until its closing episodes without producing a whiff of oxygen.

See also: Living in an anoxic world: Microbes using arsenic are a link to early life. (Science Daily, 22 September 2020)

Can a supernova affect the Earth System?

The easy answer is yes, simply because chemical elements with a greater relative atomic mass than that of iron are thought to be created in supernovae when dying giant stars collapse under their own gravity and then explode. Interstellar dust and gas clouds accumulate their debris. If the clouds are sufficiently dense gravity forms clumps that may become new stars and the planets that surround them. Matter from every once-nearby supernova enters these clouds and thus contributes to the formation of a planet. This was partly proven when pre-solar grains were found in the Murchison meteorite, some of which are as old as 7.5 billion years (Ga) – 3 Ga older than the Solar System (see: Mineral grains far older than the Solar System; January 15, 2020). Murchison is a carbonaceous chondrite, a class of meteorite which likely contributed lots of carbon-based compounds to the early Earth, setting the stage for the emergence of life. It has been estimated that a near-Earth supernova (closer than 1000 light years) would have noticeable effects on the biosphere, mainly because of the effects on atmospheric composition of the associated high-energy gamma-ray burst. That would create sufficient nitrogen oxides to destroy the ozone layer that shields the surface from harmful radiation. There are reckoned to have been 20 nearby supernovae during the last 10 Ma or so from the presence of anomalously high levels of the isotope 60Fe in marine sediment layers on the Pacific floor. Yet there is no convincing evidence that they coincided with detectable extinctions in the fossil record. But supernovae have been suggested as a possible cause of more ancient mass extinctions, such as that at the end of the Ordovician Period (but see: The late-Ordovician mass extinction: volcanic connections; July 2017).

Diorama of an Early Devonian reef with tabulate and rugose corals and trilobites (Credit: Richard Bizley)

The Late Devonian is generally accepted to be one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events. However, unlike the others, the event was a protracted decline in biodiversity, with several extinction peaks). In particular it marked the end of Palaeozoic reef-building corals. Some have put down the episodic faunal decline to the effects of species moving from one marine basin to another as global sea levels fluctuated: much like the effects of the ‘invasion’ of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns sea urchin that has helped devastate parts of the Great Barrier Reef during present-day global warming (see: Late Devonian: mass extinction or mass invasion? January 2012). Recently, attention has switched to evidence for ultra-violet damage to the morphology of spores found in the strata that display faunal extinction; i.e. to the possibility of the ozone layer having been lost or severely depleted. One suggestion has been sudden peaks in volcanic activity, hinted at by spikes in the abundance of mercury of marine sediments. Brian Fields of the University of Illinois, with colleagues from the USA, UK, Estonia and Switzerland, have closely examined the possibility and the testability of a supernova’s influence (Fields. B.D. et al. 2020.  Supernova triggers for end-Devonian extinctions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, article 202013774; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013774117).

They propose the deployment of mass-spectrometric analysis for anomalous stable-isotope abundances in the sediments that contain faunal evidence for accelerated extinction, particularly those of 146Sm, 235U and the long-lived plutonium isotope 244Pu (80 Ma hal-life). They suggest that the separation of the extinction into several events, may be a clue to a supernova culprit. A gamma-ray burst would arrive at light speed, but dust – containing the detectable isotopes –  although likely to be travelling very quickly would arrive hundred to thousands of years later, depending on the distance to the supernova. Cosmic rays generated by the supernova, also a possible kill mechanism, given a severely depleted ozone layer, travel about half the speed of light. Three separate arrivals for the products of a single stellar explosion are indeed handy as an explanation for the Late Devonian extinctions. But someone needs to do the analyses. The long-lived  plutonium isotope is the best candidate: even detection of a few atoms in a sample would be sufficient proof. But that would require a means of ruling out contamination by anthropogenic plutonium, such as analysing the interior of fossils. But would even such an exotic discovery prove the sole influence of a galactic even?