You and I, and all the living things that we can easily see belong to the most recently evolved of the three great domains of life, the Eukarya. The vast bulk of organisms that we can’t see unaided are prokaryotes, divided into the Bacteria and the Archaea. Their genetic material floats around in their cell’s fluid, while ours resides mainly in the eukaryote cell’s nucleus with a bit in various organelles known as mitochondria and the chloroplasts of plant cells. Unlike the chicken and egg question, that concerning which came first, prokaryotes or eukaryotes, is answered by DNA. Eukaryote DNA contains a lot from prokaryotes, but the converse does not hold. That contrast posed the question of how eukaryotes arose from the two earlier, simpler forms of life, the answer to which Lynn Margulis suggested to be a whole series of symbiotic relationships among various prokaryotes that shared a host cell; her hypothesis of endosymbiosis. Now, the vast majority of eukaryotes depend on free oxygen for their metabolism, so when the first of them arose boils down to the period of geological history following the Great Oxidation Event around 2.4 billion years ago.
Molecular-clock estimates based on the range of variation in the genomes of a wide range of eukaryotes suggest it took place sometime between 1000 and 2000 Ma. A better means of homing in on a date for the Last Eukaryote Common Ancestor (LECA – as opposed to that of the first organism LUCA) would be that of the earliest fossil to show eukaryote affinities. Grypania from 1.85 Ga, a sort of whorl-like fossil, is a good candidate and is widely thought to be the earliest of our kind but lacks signs of actual cells. More convincing fossils – known generically as acritarchs – from times between 1.5 and 1.0 Ga look like primitive fungi, red algae and slime moulds. A comprehensive review of the microfossils of the Palaeoproterozoic (2.5 to 1.6 Ga) includes both prokaryotes and probable early eukaryotes (Javaux, E.J. & Lepot, K. 2017. The Paleoproterozoic fossil record: Implications for the evolution of the biosphere during Earth’s middle-age. Earth Science Reviews, v. 176, p. 68-86; doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.10.0001). Yet, despite rapidly accumulating evidence, especially from rocks in China, the picture remains one of monotony; for instance Grypania spans the best part of half a billion years. Bacteria and Archaea cannot be distinguished easily in the absence of preserved DNA. Despite evidence for oxygen in the oceans and atmosphere, apart from a few shallow-water oxygenated examples the chemistry of Palaeoproterozoic marine sediments is dominated by mineralogical outcomes of reducing chemistry. Many chemical isotopic environmental proxies ‘flat-line’ to the extent that the early Proterozoic is sometimes referred to as the ‘boring billion’, yet our ultimate precursors were part of the marine ecosystem. That is, unless one accepts the possibility that that fossils labelled ‘eukaryote’ are colonial prokaryotes – evidence for cell nuclei is sparse. Endosymbiosis, although an attractive model for eukaryote origins, is not proven. The reason for lingering scepticism is that there are only a tiny number of modern examples of prokaryote cells ending up inside those of other prokaryotes.
Whatever, chemical biomarkers in sediments older than about 720 Ma indicate that prokaryotes were the only notable primary producers in the oceans until the Neoproterozoic. Microscopic fossils that are inescapably eukaryotes in the form of amoeba suddenly emerge around that time. This development from the lingering marginality of early eukaryotes to thriving ecosystems that they dominated thereafter is a puzzle seeking a plausible explanation. It coincides with the onset of the Snowball Earth glaciations of the Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma) and a rise in atmospheric and presumably oceanic oxygen. Then macroscopic eukaryotes ‘bloomed’ into distinctively different forms in the Ediacaran Period (635 to 541 Ma) and thereafter. Before the Cryogenian we can perhaps regard eukaryan life and the endosymbiosis that may have given rise to it as a series of ecological experiments repeatedly knocked-back by chemical conditions and competition with the vastly more abundant prokaryotes.
When continents first appeared; the pace at which they grew; the tectonic and magmatic processes responsible for continental crust, and whether or not crustal material is consumed by the mantle to any great extent have been tough issues for geologists and geochemists to ponder on for the last four decades. Clearly, continental material was rare if not absent in the earliest days of the solid Earth, otherwise Hadean crust should have been found by now. Despite the hints at some differentiated, high silica rocks that may have hosted >4 billion-year old zircon crystals from much younger sediments, the oldest tangible crust – the Acasta Gneiss of northern Canada – just breaks the 4 Ga barrier: half a billion years short of the known age of the Earth (http://earth-pages.co.uk/2008/11/01/at-last-4-0-ga-barrier-broken/). Radiometric ages for crustal rocks steadily accumulated following what was in the early 1970s the astonishing discovery by Stephen Moorbath and colleagues at Oxford University and the Geological Survey of Greenland of a 3.8 billion year age for gneisses from West Greenland. For a while it seemed as if there had been great pulses that formed new crust, such as one between 2.8 and 2.5 Ga (the Neoarchaean) separated by quieter episodes. Yet dividing genuinely new material coming from the mantle from older crust that later thermal and tectonic events had reworked and remelted required – and still does – lengthy and expensive radiometric analysis of rock samples with different original complements of radioactive isotopes.
One approach to dating has been to separate tiny grains of zircon from igneous and metamorphic rocks and date them using the U-Pb method as a route to the age at which the rock formed, but that too was slow and costly. Yet zircons, being among the most intransigent of Earth materials, end up in younger sedimentary rocks after their parents have been weathered and eroded. It was an investigation of what earlier history a sediment’s zircons might yield that lead to the discovery of grains almost as old as the Earth itself (http://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/12/21/mistaken-conclusions-from-earths-oldest-materials/http://earth-pages.co.uk/2005/05/01/zircon-and-the-quest-for-life%E2%80%99s-origin/). That approach is beginning to pay dividends as regards resolving crustal history as a whole. Almost 7000 detrital zircon grains separated from sediments have been precisely dated using lead and hafnium isotopes. Using the age distribution alone suggests that the bulk of continental crust formed in the Precambrian, between 3 and 1 Ga ago, at a faster rate than it formed during the Phanerozoic. However, that assumes that a zircon’s radiometric age signifies the time of separation from the mantle of the magmas from which the grain crystallised. Yet other dating methods have shown that zircon-bearing magmas also form when old crust is remelted, and so it is important to find a means of distinguishing zircons from entirely new blocks of crust and those which result from crustal reworking. It turns out that zircons from mantle-derived crust have different oxygen isotope compositions from those which crystallised from remelted crust.
Bruno Dhuime and colleagues from St.Andrew’s and Bristol universities in the UK measures hafnium model ages and δ18O values in a sample of almost 1400 detrital zircons collected across the world from sediments of different ages (Dhuime, B. et al. 2012. A change in the geodynamics of continental growth 3 billion years ago. Science, v. 335, p. 1334-1336). Plotting δ18O against Hf model age reveals two things: there are more zircons from reworked crust than from mantle-derived materials; plotting the proportion of new crust ages to those of reworked crust form 100 Ma intervals through geological time reveals dramatic changes in the relative amounts of ‘mantle-new’ crust being produced. Before 3 Ga about three quarters of all continental crust emerged directly from the mantle. Instead of the period from 3 to 1 Ga being one of massive growth in the volume of the crust, apparently the production rate of new crust fell to about a fifth of all crust in each 100 Ma time span by around 2 Ga and then rose to reach almost 100% in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. This suggests that the late Archaean and most of the Proterozoic were characterised by repeated reworking of earlier crust, perhaps associated with the repeated formation and break-up of supercontinents by collision orogeny and then tectonic break up and continental drift.
Dhuine and colleagues then use the record of varying new crust proportions to ‘correct’ the much larger database of detrital zircon ages. What emerges is a well-defined pattern in the rate of crustal growth through time. In the Hadean and early Archaean the net growth of the continents was 3.0 km3 yr-1, whereas throughout later time this suddenly fell to and remained at 0.8 km3 yr-1. Their explanation is that the Earth only came to be dominated by plate tectonic processes mainly driven by slab-pull at subduction zones after 3 Ga. Subduction not only produces mantle-derived magmas but inevitably allows continents to drift and collide, thereby leading to massive deformation and thermal reworking of older crust in orogenic belts and an apparent peak in zircon ages. The greater rate of new crust generation before 3 Ga may therefore have been due to other tectonic processes than the familiar dominance of subduction. Yet, since there is convincing evidence for subduction in a few ancient crustal blocks, such as west Greenland and around Hudson’s Bay in NE Canada, plate tectonics must have existed but was overwhelmed perhaps by processes more directly linked to mantle plumes.