Did a "Nickel Famine" Allow Life As We Know It to Take Over?

By Eliza Strickland | April 9, 2009 11:38 am

banded ironAbout 2.7 billion years ago, the primordial seas already hosted the first photosynthetic microbes, the blue-green algae that took in carbon dioxide and released oxygen into the air. But they were outnumbered by methane-producing bacteria called methanogens [that] thrived in nickel-rich seas. The high amounts of methane that this early life pumped into the environment prevented oxygen accumulation in the atmosphere because the methane reacted with any oxygen, creating carbon dioxide and water [Science News], according to one theory. Now, a group of researchers say they’ve found the trigger that allowed oxygen to build up, and therefore allowed for a profusion of oxygen-breathing life.

The secret was the concentrations of the metal nickel, according to the new study, published in Nature. The scientists found that by analysing a type of sedimentary rock known as banded-iron formations they could monitor levels of nickel in the oceans of the early Earth dating as far back as 3.8 billion years ago. They found there was a marked fall in nickel between 2.7 billion and 2.5 billion years ago [The Independent]. That stretch of time correlates with what researchers call the Great Oxidation Event, when oxygen began to take hold in the atmosphere.

The scientists suggest that cooling of the Earth’s mantle decreased eruptions of nickel-rich volcanic rock, which meant that less nickel was being weathered from the rocks and dissolved in the oceans [National Geographic News]. This “nickel famine” would have seriously interfered with the methanogens, which use nickel-based enzymes for many important metabolic reactions.

Thus, a geological shift may have permitted the photosynthesizing algae to gain the upper hand, pumping out oxygen faster than it could be broken down. “The Great Oxidation Event is what irreversibly changed surface environments on Earth and ultimately made advanced life possible. It was a major turning point in the evolution of life on our planet, and we are getting closer to understanding how it occurred” [The Independent], says study coauthor Dominic Papineau.

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Image: Stefan Lalonde

  • zach

    Any insight into biological history is fascinating, this is a true revelation.

  • Dave

    I agree to that, this truly helps to write a lost page in the history of early earth. perhaps one day we’ll know how the two diverse groups of bacteria came to be, and who came first.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    I suspect that if things had gone the other way there’d be methane-breathing life forms speculating that if things hadn’t gone their way life wouldn’t exist in all the wonderful forms it did for them. :)

  • amphiox

    Interesting speculation Nick. But would a methane atmosphere be likely to provide the same amount of energy as an oxygen one? It was the amount of available energy that really made multicellular life possible, rather than any specific pathway, but as far as I know, and it was the ease with which molecular oxygen allowed for efficient oxidative metabolism that allowed for this. Would a methane atmosphere without readily available sources of oxygen have allowed for anything comparably similar? I’m not sure if the laws of chemistry actually allow for that.

  • YouRang

    Having a methane atmosphere must have been a bonus. The methane would have retained enough heat to compensate for the lack of a warm sun (Global Warming circa 3 billion BC). It would seem that something else must have happened to compensate for the cooling effect of the loss of methane (and CO2 also)–Maybe a geologic distribution of the continents more consistent with warm ocean currents–an early Pangea.


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