Bubbles of life from the past: Tiny bubbles of oxygen got trapped 1.6 billion years ago

March 2, 2018, University of Southern Denmark
Fossilized bubbles and cyanobacterial fabric from 1.6 billion-year-old phosphatized microbial mats from Vindhyan Supergroup, central India. Credit: Stefan Bengtson.

Take a good look at these photos: They show you 1.6 billion years old fossilized oxygen bubbles, created by tiny microbes in what was once a shallow sea somewhere on young Earth.

The bubbles were photographed and analyzed by researchers studying early life on Earth.

Microbes are of special interest: They were not only the first life forms on Earth. They also turned our planet into a tolerable environment for plants and animals and thus their activity paved the way for life as we know it today.

Some of these early microbes were cyanobacteria that thrived in early . They produced oxygen by photosynthesis, and sometimes the oxygen got trapped as bubbles within sticky .

Fossilized bubbles and cyanobacterial fabric from 1.6 billion-year-old phosphatized microbial mats from Vindhyan Supergroup, central India. Credit Stefan Bengtson.

The bubbles in the photos were preserved, and today they can be seen as a signature for life.

Ph.D. Therese Sallstedt and colleagues from University of Southern Denmark, Swedish Museum of Natural History and Stockholm University studied fossilized sediments from India, and they found round spheres in the microbial mats.

We interpret them as bubbles created in cyanobacterial biomats in shallow waters 1,6 billion years ago, said Therese Sallstedt.

Fossilized bubbles and cyanobacterial fabric from 1.6 billion-year-old phosphatized microbial mats from Vindhyan Supergroup, central India. Credit: Stefan Bengtson.

Cyanobacteria changed the face of the Earth irreversibly since they were responsible for oxygenating the atmosphere. Simultaneously they constructed sedimentary structures called stromatolites, which still exist on Earth today.

Some bubbles have been partly compressed, suggesting a flexible original texture. Credit: Stefan Bengtson.

The researchers now think that cyanobacteria played a larger role than previously believed in creating phosphorites in shallow waters, thereby allowing today's scientists a unique window into ancient ecosystems. They published their findings in the journal Geobiology.

Bubbles of life from the past
Some bubbles have been partly compressed, suggesting a flexible original texture. Credit: Stefan Bengtson.

Explore further: Researchers find evidence of cavity-dwelling microbial life from 3 billion years ago

More information: T. Sallstedt et al, Evidence of oxygenic phototrophy in ancient phosphatic stromatolites from the Paleoproterozoic Vindhyan and Aravalli Supergroups, India, Geobiology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/gbi.12274

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Steelwolf
5 / 5 (1) Mar 03, 2018
I would imagine that the bubbles in a biomat would do two things for the organism, one, it would help float the mass and keep it in better sunlight for the cyanobateria to use, and two, since Oxygen was still, at the time, a major toxin and waste product, it may have been an attempt to sequester it in containment so that it slowed it's release to the general environment, thus making it healthier for those cyanobacteria around it's surface. Just a couple of quick thoughts.
jonesdave
5 / 5 (1) Mar 03, 2018
Oxygen was still, at the time, a major toxin and waste product, it may have been an attempt to sequester it in containment so that it slowed it's release to the general environment,..


Well, cows can't breathe methane, so imagine if they tried to stop putting it into the environment! Not a nice thought :)
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2018
Well, the bubbles are coincidental and "sometimes" formed at the right circumstances, the evolved stickiness of the mats one of the latter. So maybe the bacteria benefited, maybe not.

No doubt the toxic properties of oxygen was an early boon for the bacteria to first compete with other prokaryotes and later defend themselves from eukaryote grazing, as we can see stromatolites generally disappearing except in peculiar circumstances. (Such as hypersaline pools in Australia or oligotrophic lakes in, say, mountains.) Though I think unicellular eukaryote attacks - microscale tunneling - started to happen 2.0 - 2.5 Gyrs ago, at the time oxygen oases permitted evolution of mitochondriate (oxygen dependent) eukaryotes.
Steelwolf
not rated yet Mar 08, 2018
@jonesdave:

"Well, cows can't breathe methane, so imagine if they tried to stop putting it into the environment!"

Well, if nothing else it would certainly blow bubbles. There has actually been speculation amongst Dragon Theorists (I know, talk about WOOO) that perhaps hydrogen gas, from hydrochloric acid on iron action, might produce the amounts of hydrogen a dragon would need for lift, similar to a balloon, and similarly the gas would be semi-toxic to it, at least one would have to be VERY careful of fire and lightning. The fire breathing was a dangerous way of getting rid of excess gas however did provent local buildup in the nesting area.

One would assume them to be big gasbags, perhaps multipartite bubbles, and perhaps descendant from creature akin to those cows of yours....

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