Did a nickel famine trigger the 'Great Oxidation Event'?

April 8, 2009
Banded iron formations like this from northern Michigan contain evidence of a drop in dissolved nickel in ancient oceans.

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Earth's original atmosphere held very little oxygen. This began to change around 2.4 billion years ago when oxygen levels increased dramatically during what scientists call the "Great Oxidation Event." The cause of this event has puzzled scientists, but researchers writing in Nature* have found indications in ancient sedimentary rocks that it may have been linked to a drop in the level of dissolved nickel in seawater.

"The Great Event is what irreversibly changed surface environments on and ultimately made advanced life possible," says research team member Dominic Papineau of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory. "It was a major turning point in the evolution of our planet, and we are getting closer to understanding how it occurred."

The researchers, led by Kurt Konhauser of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, analyzed the trace element composition of sedimentary rocks known as banded-iron formations, or BIFs, from dozens of different localities around the world, ranging in age from 3,800 to 550 million years. Banded iron formations are unique, water-laid deposits often found in extremely old rock strata that formed before the or oceans contained abundant . As their name implies, they are made of alternating bands of iron and silicate minerals. They also contain minor amounts of nickel and other trace elements.

Nickel exists in today's oceans in trace amounts, but was up to 400 times more abundant in the Earth's primordial oceans. Methane-producing microorganisms, called methanogens, thrive in such environments, and the methane they released to the atmosphere might have prevented the buildup of oxygen gas, which would have reacted with the methane to produce carbon dioxide and water. A drop in nickel concentration would have led to a "nickel famine" for the methanogens, who rely on nickel-based enzymes for key metabolic processes. Algae and other organisms that release oxygen during photosynthesis use different enzymes, and so would have been less affected by the nickel famine. As a result, atmospheric methane would have declined, and the conditions for the rise of oxygen would have been set in place.

The researchers found that nickel levels in the BIFs began dropping around 2.7 billion years ago and by 2.5 billion years ago was about half its earlier value. "The timing fits very well. The drop in nickel could have set the stage for the Great Oxidation Event," says Papineau. "And from what we know about living methanogens, lower levels of nickel would have severely cut back methane production."

What caused the drop in nickel? The researchers point to geologic changes that were occurring during the interval. During earlier phases of the Earth's history, while its mantle was extremely hot, lavas from volcanic eruptions would have been relatively high in nickel. Erosion would have washed the nickel into the sea, keeping levels high. But as the mantle cooled, and the chemistry of lavas changed, volcanoes spewed out less nickel, and less would have found its way to the sea.

"The nickel connection was not something anyone had considered before," says Papineau. "It's just a trace element in seawater, but our study indicates that it may have had a huge impact on the Earth's environment and on the history of life."

More information: Kurt O. Konhauser, Ernesto Pecoits, Stefan V. Lalonde, Dominic Papineau, Euan G. Nisbet, Mark E. Barley, Nicholas T. Arndt, Kevin Zahnle & Balz S. Kamber, Oceanic nickel depletion and a methanogen famine before the Great Oxidation Event, scheduled for publication in Nature on 09 April, 2009.

Source: Carnegie Institution

Explore further: Climate change and the rise of atmospheric oxygen

Related Stories

Climate change and the rise of atmospheric oxygen

March 23, 2006

Today's climate change pales in comparison with what happened as Earth gave birth to its oxygen-containing atmosphere billions of years ago. By analyzing clues contained in rocks, scientists at the Carnegie Institution's ...

The earliest blacksmiths may have been bacteria

October 16, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Talk about a Cold Case. This mystery goes back to when there was no oxygen on the planet and bacteria were the most sophisticated life form. But Kurt Konhauser holds a clue to answering some ancient questions. ...

Recommended for you

Climate ups odds of 'grey swan' superstorms

August 31, 2015

Climate change will boost the odds up to 14-fold for extremely rare, hard-to-predict tropical cyclones for parts of Australia, the United States and Dubai by 2100, researchers said Monday.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

QubitTamer
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 08, 2009
Just think of the tragedy of Climate Change back then when all the anaerobic life-forms died due to this horrible horrible climate shift. No species on earth should ever ever go extinct, unless of course that species is Homo Sapiens.

Too bad Al Goracle wasn't around to try to stop it.
superhuman
1 / 5 (5) Apr 08, 2009
This is pure speculation.
1. During 200 million years metanogens could have developed alternative enzymes to deal with nickel shortage.
2. A drop to half the initial concentration in 200 million years is hardly a famine.
3. The "explanation" for why the concentration of nickel has declined comes down to "because the lava changed" and therefore does not explain anything
4. The timing certainly does not "fit perfectly" as the drop by half during 200 million years is nothing as it later dropped to a 200 times lower value, but the authors don't say or know when.
5. The concentration of nickel can be a result of the rise in the concentration of oxygen not the reason.
jeffsaunders
1 / 5 (4) Apr 08, 2009
Still looks like chicken and egg argument from here.

Oxygen increase cause Nickel drop or visa versa.

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.