Earth's Minerals Evolved Too, Thanks to the Evolution of Life

By Eliza Strickland | November 17, 2008 10:04 am

rocks mineralsThe evolution of minerals on our planet has been propelled by the evolution of life on earth, a sweeping new study demonstrates. While the underlying assumption isn’t new, the study is the first to chart how the emergence of algae and then complex microorganisms gave rise to the 4,300 or so minerals that are now present on earth.

In the early days of the universe, clouds of gas and dust contained all the naturally occurring elements found in the periodic table, but most were too widely dispersed to form minerals; scientists believe there were only about a dozen minerals in the interstellar medium. According to the study, around a further 60 different minerals formed 4.5 billion years ago, as clumps of matter collided and coalesced to begin forming the Solar System. The smaller fragments congealed into larger, planet-sized bodies, where volcanism and the effects of water took the mineral count into the hundreds. The planets Mars and Venus have got this far [Nature News], and have minerals created by hot magma like quartz and zircon.

In the study, published in American Mineralogist [subscription required], lead researcher Robert Hazen says that the earth’s plate tectonics further increased the mineral count, but it was the origin of life around 4 billion years ago that really boosted the diversity of rocks on our planet. Photosynthesising organisms created abundant atmospheric oxygen. Under this oxygen-rich environment, the chemical processes of oxidation and weathering generated a swathe of new species of metal-rich minerals, such as iron. “Four billion years ago, metals on the surface like iron and copper remained pure and shiny,” says Hazen. “But the new atmosphere oxidised them, creating a host of new minerals” [New Scientist].

As complex microorganisms evolved in the ocean, the calcium-rich shells and bones of marine creatures fell to the seafloor and were compacted into a new mineral known as calcite. Meanwhile, on the land, the roots of plants created acids that converted minerals of volcanic origin into clays.

Researchers say that understanding what the presence of certain minerals indicates about the presence of life could yield rich rewards in the study of other planets. With NASA’s Messenger probe now going into orbit around Mercury, Dr Hazen predicts that it will find only 300 or so minerals on the planet. If there are 500-1,000 detected, then it will suggest that there is a lot more to Mercury than anyone originally thought. And if minerals that depend upon life for their formation show up, then researchers will be flummoxed. The same is true for Mars and other planets—including the exoplanets that have been known about but which have just been seen for the first time orbiting stars outside the Solar System [The Economist].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Evolution: it works, bixbites talks more about this study
80beats: New Results from a 1953 Experiment Offer Hints to the Origin of Life
DISCOVER: Rock-a-Pedia marvels at the first open-source geology atlas

Image: flickr/ Gaetan Lee

  • Dov Henis

    Culture is a ubiquitous trait, of the inanimate and animate realms,
    The following was written re Racism, but it is relevant here.

    More On Unified Theory And Life

    More On Forces-Matter-Life Unified Theory

    Comparative assessment of intelligence of different phenotypes?

    Within a genotype, intelligence is a genetic trait of the individual. It is the capability to assess-adapt. It is the ability to modify cognition-culture in response to variable circumstances-environments.

    Culture is a ubiquitous trait, of the inanimate and animate realms, thus intelligence – an element of culture – is a ubiquitous trait.

    Approach and method to (comparatively?) (what is it?) assess intelligence of the individuals of cultural phenotypes within a genotype, or to understand and comprehend genotypes’ cultures and the intelligence of their individuals, belong in the sphere of the quest for the Forces-Matter-Life Unified Theory.

    Cultures are historical cosmic evolutionary entities and the unravelling of the nature of their elements and of their evolution processes is the horizon-goal of the Unified Theory.


    Dov Henis

    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)–?cq=1


    Why ‘Life’ In Forces-Matter-Life Unified Theory

    A. From “Science Creed Manifest(SCM)”–?cq=1&p=142

    Humans display a different approach to the scientific study of the nature of life than to the study of anything else. This may be due to an aversion to accept the dismaying realization that we are, after all, just one of the many life forms on Earth (or in our galaxy or the universe?).

    A most essential, and uniquely human, ingrained-inherent need is some degree of self-esteem. The mere survival and existence of human individuals and communities of any size is anchored and established on a foundation of self-esteem culture which is neatly a complete creation of humans. Humanity is urgently becoming faced with the vital need to re-formulate its basis of culture, to anchor and build our life edifice on a rational, deeply convincing, moral-ethical-social values.

    B. Culture Is A Ubiquitous Trait (“-” from my earlier posts)

    – “Culture is a ubiquitous trait, of both the inanimate and animate realms, thus intelligence – an element of culture – is a ubiquitous trait.”

    – Within the realm of life not only creatures, but also plants, display culture AND intelligence.

    – “Broken Symmetry” Is Physics’ Term For Biology’s “Evolution”

    – “And it is also observable that ALL evolutions are fueled by culture, culture being the totality of ways of the system’s dealing (reaction to, manipulation of, exploitation of) with its environment.”

    C. So Why ‘Life’ In Forces-Matter-Life Unified Theory?

    Because life is neither an exception in, nor essentially different from, all other matter. All matter consist of energy and serves as a temporary storage of energy, and so is life.

    D. Yet within the ‘essential’ matterness of life

    it is ,of course, observable that life is peculiar in the method and process of reproduction, even though ALL matter undergoes other forms of reproduction, too.


    Dov Henis

    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)–?cq=1


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