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)