Scientists Establish Connection Between Life Today and Ancient Changes in Ocean Chemistry

November 7, 2006

Researchers in computational biology and marine science have combined their diverse expertise and found that trace-metal usage by present-day organisms probably derives from major changes in ocean chemistry occurring over geological time scales.

Using protein structures for the first time in such a study, the research establishes one of the influences that geochemistry has had upon life.

The study, published in this week’s edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sought to verify the theory that the rise in atmospheric oxygen some 2.3 billion years ago, and attendant shifts in ocean chemistry, led to changes in types of metals used with protein structures. Such changes are hypothesized to have led to the diversification and increased complexity of the life we see today.

Scientists Chris Dupont, Song Yang, Brian Palenik and Philip Bourne from the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the departments of chemistry and biochemistry and pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) analyzed the metal-binding characteristics of all known protein structures found in all kingdoms of life.

“Protein structures are ideal for this study,” Bourne said, “since they are much more conserved than protein sequences, traditionally used in such studies and, furthermore, metal binding can be inferred directly.”

Using data generated by Dupont and Yang, the group established that the three superkingdoms of life – Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya -- all use metals differently. The differences reflect the availability of such metals in the ocean as the respective superkingdoms evolved.

The authors conclude that, “these conserved trends are proteomic imprints of changes in trace-metal bioavailability in the ancient ocean that highlight a major evolutionary shift in biological trace-metal usage.”

The changes in trace-metal availability are believed to have been brought about by the biologically caused rise in atmospheric oxygen some 2.3 billion years ago, highlighting the co-evolution of biology and geochemistry on a global scale.

“Here, a biological phenomenon, photosynthesis, changed the availability of trace metals in the oceans,” Dupont said, “resulting in a reciprocal change in biological evolution still observable today.”

The group notes that, “such studies linking the study of the earth sciences with that of the life sciences are limited and certainly no one has previously looked at this exciting area from the perspective of protein structure. We hope this will encourage others to undertake such interdisciplinary work.”

Source: University of California, San Diego

Explore further: Neptune's moon of Triton

Related Stories

Neptune's moon of Triton

July 29, 2015

The planets of the outer solar system are known for being strange, as are their many moons. This is especially true of Triton, Neptune's largest moon. In addition to being the seventh-largest moon in the solar system, it ...

Plant light sensors came from ancient algae

July 28, 2015

The light-sensing molecules that tell plants whether to germinate, when to flower and which direction to grow were inherited millions of years ago from ancient algae, finds a new study from Duke University.

Parasitic flatworms flout global biodiversity patterns

July 24, 2015

The odds of being attacked and castrated by a variety of parasitic flatworms increases for marine horn snails the farther they are found from the tropics. A Smithsonian-led research team discovered this exception to an otherwise ...

Mounting threat to Galapagos from 'El Nino'

July 23, 2015

The Galapagos Islands, celebrated for their breathtaking biodiversity, could face a major threat from "El Nino," the weather system known to wreak havoc every few years.

Recommended for you

A cataclysmic event of a certain age

July 27, 2015

At the end of the Pleistocene period, approximately 12,800 years ago—give or take a few centuries—a cosmic impact triggered an abrupt cooling episode that earth scientists refer to as the Younger Dryas.

'Carbon sink' detected underneath world's deserts

July 28, 2015

The world's deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.