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How Evolution of Life Got a Late Start

Low Oxygen and Molybdenum Levels in Ancient Oceans Delayed Evolution of Life by Two Billion Years

UCR-led study tracked biogeochemical signatures preserved in ancient sedimentary rocks to establish nature and timing of oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere

(March 26, 2008)

Clinton Scott (left), the first author of the research paper, is a graduate student working in the laboratory of Timothy Lyons (right), a professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences.  Scott is seen holding a sample of black shale the researchers used in their analysis.  <!-- Black shales are rich in organic matter and are repositories for molybdenum, with concentrations that vary with the amount of molybdenum in seawater. -->Photo credit: Lyons lab, UC Riverside.Enlarge

Clinton Scott (left), the first author of the research paper, is a graduate student working in the laboratory of Timothy Lyons (right), a professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences. Scott is seen holding a sample of black shale the researchers used in their analysis. Photo credit: Lyons lab, UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A deficiency of oxygen and the heavy metal molybdenum in the ancient deep ocean may have delayed the evolution of animal life on Earth by nearly two billion years, a study led by UC Riverside biogeochemists has found.

The researchers arrived at their result by tracking molybdenum in black shales, which are a kind of sedimentary rock rich in organic matter and usually found in the deep ocean. Molybdenum is a key micronutrient for life and serves as a proxy for oceanic and atmospheric oxygen amounts.

Study results appear in the March 27 issue of Nature.

Following the initial rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen was transferred to the surface ocean to support oxygen-demanding microorganims. Yet the diversity of these single-celled life forms remained low, and their multicellular descendants, the animals, did not appear until about 600 million years ago, explained Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences and one of the study’s authors.

Suspecting that deficiencies in oxygen and molybdenum might explain this evolutionary lag, Lyons and his colleagues measured abundances of molybdenum in ancient marine sediments over time to estimate how much of the metal had been dissolved in the seawater in which the sediments formed.

The researchers found significant, firsthand evidence for a molybdenum-depleted ocean relative to the high levels measured in modern, oxygen-rich seawater.

“These molybdenum depletions may have retarded the development of complex life such as animals for almost two billion years of Earth history,” Lyons said. “The amount of molybdenum in the ocean probably played a major role in the development of early life. As in the case of iron today, molybdenum can be thought of as a life-affirming micronutrient that regulates the biological cycling of nitrogen in the ocean.

“At the same time, molybdenum’s low abundance in the early ocean tracks the global extent of oxygen-poor seawater and implies that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was still low.

“Knowing the amount of oxygen in the early ocean is important for many reasons, including a refined understanding of how and when appreciable oxygen first began to accumulate in the atmosphere,” Lyons said. “These steps in oxygenation are what gave rise ultimately to the first animals almost 600 million years ago — just the last tenth or so of Earth history.”

Earth’s oxygenation

For animal life to commence, survive and eventually expand on Earth, a threshold amount of oxygen — estimated to be on the order of 1 to 10 percent of present atmospheric levels of oxygen — was needed.

Past research has shown that Earth’s oxygenation occurred in two major steps:

The first step, around 2.4 billion years ago, took place as the ocean transitioned to a state where only the surface ocean was oxygenated by photosynthesizing bacteria, while the deep ocean was relatively oxygen-free.

The second step, around 600 million years ago, marked the occasion when the entire ocean became fully oxygenated through a process not yet fully understood.

“We wanted to know what the state of the ocean was between the two steps,” said Clinton Scott, a graduate student working in Lyons’s lab and the first author of the research paper. “By tracking molybdenum in shales rich in organic matter, we found the deep ocean remained oxygen- and molybdenum-deficient after the first step. This condition may have had a negative impact on the evolution of early eukaryotes, our single-celled ancestors. The molybdenum record also tells us that the deep ocean was already fully oxygenated by around 550 million years ago.”

According to Scott, the timing of the oxygenation steps suggests that significant events in Earth history are related. Scientists have long speculated that the evolution of the first animals was linked somehow to the so-called Snowball Earth hypothesis, which posits that the Earth was covered from pole to pole in a thick sheet of ice for millions of years at a time. “The second oxygenation step took place not long after the last Snowball Earth episode ended around 600 million years ago,” Scott said. “So one question is: Did this global glaciation play a role in the increasing abundance of oxygen which, in turn, enabled the evolution of animals?”

Scott and Lyons were joined in the research by A. Bekker of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC; Y. Shen of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada; S.W. Poulton of Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom; X. Chu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; and A.D. Anbar of Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

The research was supported by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation Division of Earth Sciences and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

More about molybdenum as a proxy for ocean chemistry

Molybdenum, a metal abundant in the ocean today but less so at times in the past, is an excellent tracer of ancient chemistry for two reasons. First, the primary source of molybdenum to the ocean is oxidative weathering of continental crust, requiring oxygen in the atmosphere. Second, molybdenum is removed primarily in marine sediments where oxygen is absent and sulfide is abundant. Thus the enrichment of molybdenum in ancient organic-rich shales requires oxygen in the atmosphere but high sulfur and very low or no oxygen in the deep ocean. This combination is relatively rare today but may have been common when oxygen was less abundant in the earlier atmosphere.

When oxygen is available in the atmosphere, the amount of dissolved molybdenum in seawater is determined by the extent of hydrogen-sulfide-containing sediments and bottom waters (the colder, more isolated, lowermost layer of ocean water). Where sulfidic environments are widespread, the pool of molybdenum remaining in seawater is small, growing as the sulfidic environments shrink. The amount of molybdenum in the seawater is reflected in the magnitude of molybdenum enrichment in shales deposited in the deep ocean.

The UCR-led team of researchers estimated the size of the oceanic reservoir, and thus the extent of sulfidic bottom waters and sediments, based on the concentration of molybdenum in ancient black shales. They did so by dissolving the samples in a cocktail of acids and analyzing the dissolved rock for concentration using a mass spectrometer. The amount of this metal in the shales tracks the oxygen state of the early ocean and atmosphere and also points to the varying abundance of this essential ingredient of life. Molybdenum limitations may have delayed the development of eukaryotes, including the first animals, our earliest multicellular cousins.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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