Fool's gold gives scientists priceless insight into Earth's evolution

July 22, 2011

Fool's gold is providing scientists with valuable insights into a turning point in the Earth's evolution, which took place billions of years ago.

Scientists are recreating ancient forms of the mineral pyrite – dubbed fool's gold for its metallic lustre – that reveal details of past geological events.

Detailed analysis of the mineral is giving fresh insight into the before the Great Oxygenation Event, which took place 2.4 billion years ago. This was a time when oxygen released by early forms of bacteria gave rise to new forms of plant and animal life, transforming the Earth's oceans and atmosphere.

Studying the composition of pyrite enables a geological snapshot of events at the time when it was formed. Studying the composition of different forms of iron in fool's gives scientists clues as to how conditions such as atmospheric oxygen influenced the processes forming the compound.

The latest research shows that bacteria – which would have been an abundant life form at the time – did not influence the early composition of pyrite. This result, which contrasts with previous thinking, gives scientists a much clearer picture of the process.

More extensively, their discovery enables better understanding of geological conditions at the time, which informs how the oceans and atmosphere evolved.

The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Edinburgh Collaborative of Subsurface Science and Engineering, was published in Science.

Dr Ian Butler, who led the research, said: "Technology allows us to trace scientific processes that we can't see from examining the mineral composition alone, to understand how compounds were formed. This new information about pyrite gives us a much sharper tool with which to analyse the early evolution of the Earth, telling us more about how our planet was formed."

Dr Romain Guilbaud, investigator on the study, said: "Our discovery enables a better understanding of how information on the Earth's , recorded in ancient minerals, can be interpreted."

Explore further: Did a nickel famine trigger the 'Great Oxidation Event'?

Related Stories

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

April 8, 2009

( -- 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." ...

Oxygen-free early oceans likely delayed rise of life on planet

January 10, 2011

Geologists at the University of California, Riverside have found chemical evidence in 2.6-billion-year-old rocks that indicates that Earth's ancient oceans were oxygen-free and, surprisingly, contained abundant hydrogen sulfide ...

Fool's gold catches eye of solar energy researchers

January 21, 2011

Iron pyrite - also known as fool's gold - may be worthless to treasure hunters, but it could become a bonanza to the solar industry. The mineral, among the most abundant in the earth's crust, is usually discarded by coal ...

'Fool's Gold' from the deep is fertilizer for ocean life

May 9, 2011

Similar to humans, the bacteria and tiny plants living in the ocean need iron for energy and growth. But their situation is quite different from ours--for one, they can't turn to natural iron sources like leafy greens or ...

Recommended for you

Climate scientist hits out at IPCC projections

October 13, 2015

As a new chairman is appointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change (IPCC) a University of Manchester climate expert has said headline projections from the organisation about future warming are 'wildly over optimistic.'

'Bridge' fuel may escalate atmospheric greenhouse gas

October 13, 2015

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests there has been a decline in measurable atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in the U.S. for the past seven years, a Cornell scientist says ...

Study sees powerful winds carving away Antarctic snow

October 13, 2015

A new study has found that powerful winds are removing massive amounts of snow from parts of Antarctica, potentially boosting estimates of how much the continent might contribute to sea level. Up to now, scientists had thought ...


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.