Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”

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This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=13

Alan J. Kaufman home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=15

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=66

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

Life in Earth’s primordial sea was starved for sulfate

This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia -- a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth's early oceans. -  Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans. – Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.

The Earth’s ancient oceans held much lower concentrations of sulfate–a key biological nutrient–than previously recognized, according to research published this week in Science.

The findings paint a new portrait of our planet’s early biosphere and primitive marine life. Organisms require sulfur as a nutrient, and it plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

“Our findings are a fraction of previous estimates, and thousands of time lower than current seawater levels,” says Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans–and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”

UBC, University of Southern Denmark, CalTech, University of Minnesota Duluth, and University of Maryland researchers used new techniques and models to calibrate fingerprints of bacterial sulfur metabolisms in Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans.

Measuring these fingerprints in rocks older than 2.5 billion years, they discovered sulfate 80 times lower than previously thought.

The more sensitive fingerprinting provides a powerful tool to search for sulfur metabolisms deep in Earth’s history or on other planets like Mars.

Findings

Previous research has suggested that Archean sulfate levels were as low as 200 micromolar– concentrations at which sulfur would still have been abundantly available to early marine life.

The new results indicate levels were likely less than 2.5 micromolar, thousands of times lower than today.

What the researchers did

Researchers used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

They found that microbial sulfur metabolisms impart large fingerprints even when sulfate is scarce.

The team used the techniques on samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia–a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans.

“New measurements in these unique modern environments allow us to use numerical models to reconstruct ancient ocean chemistry with unprecedented resolution” says Sergei Katsev an Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.

Using models informed by sulfate isotope fractionation in Lake Matano, they established a new calibration for sulfate isotope fractionation that is extensible to the Earth’s oceans throughout history. The researchers then reconstructed Archean seawater sulfate concentrations using these models and an exhaustive compilation of sulfur isotope data from Archean sedimentary rocks.

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Crowe initiated the research while a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark.

Geologists dig into science around the globe, on land and at sea

University of Cincinnati geologists will be well represented among geoscientists from around the world at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver, Canada, and will feature geoscientists representing more than 40 different disciplines. The meeting will feature highlights of UC’s geological research that is taking place globally, from Chile to Costa Rica, Belize, Bulgaria, Scotland, Trinidad and a new project under development in the Canary Islands.

UC faculty and graduate students are lead or supporting authors on more than two dozen Earth Sciences-related research papers and/or PowerPoint and poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting.

The presentations also cover UC’s longtime and extensive exploration and findings in the Cincinnati Arch of the Ohio Valley, world-renowned for its treasure trove of paleontology – plant and animal fossils that were preserved when a shallow sea covered the region 450 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era.

Furthermore, in an effort to diversify the field of researchers in the Earth Sciences, a UC assistant professor of science education and geology, Christopher Atchison, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation and the Society of Exploration Geophysics to lead a research field trip in Vancouver for students with disabilities. Graduate and undergraduate student participants will conduct the research on Oct. 18 and then join events at the GSA meeting. They’ll be guided by geoscience researchers representing the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Those guides include Atchison and Julie Hendricks, a UC special education major from Batavia, Ohio, who will be using her expertise in American Sign Language (ASL) to assist student researchers representing Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The meeting will also formally introduce Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology, as the new president-elect of the national Paleontological Society Thomas Lowell, professor of geology, is a recently elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America – a recognition for producing a substantial body of research. Lowell joins colleagues Warren Huff, professor of geology, and Lewis Owen, professor and head of the Department of Geology, as GSA Fellows.

Here are highlights of the UC research to be presented at the GSA meeting Oct. 19-22:

Staying Put or Moving On? Researchers Develop Model to Identify Migrating Patterns of Different Species

Are plant and animal species what you might call lifelong residents – they never budge from the same place? That’s a relatively common belief in ecology and paleoecology – that classes of organisms tend to stay put over millions of years and either evolve or go extinct as the environment changes. UC researchers developed a series of numerical models simulating shifting habitats in fossil regions to compare whether species changed environments when factoring geological and other changes in the fossil record. They found that geologically driven changes in the quality of the fossil record did not distort the real ecological signal, and that most species maintained their particular habitat preferences through time. They did not evolve to adapt to changing environments, but rather, they migrated, following their preferred environments. That is to say, they did not stay in place geographically but by moving, they were able to track their favored habitats. Field research for the project was conducted in New York state as well as the paleontological-rich region of Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky.; and Indiana. Funding for the project was supported by The Paleontological Society; The Geological Society of America; The American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department’s Kenneth E. Caster Memorial Fund.

Presenter: Andrew Zaffos, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller, Carlton Brett

Pioneering Study Provides a Better Understanding of What Southern Ohio and Central Kentucky Looked Like Hundreds of Millions of Years Ago

The end of the Ordovician period resulted in one of the largest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. T.J. Malgieri, a UC master’s student in geology, led this study examining the limestone and shales of the Upper Ordovician Period – the geologic Grant Lake Formation covering southern Ohio and central Kentucky – to recreate how the shoreline looked some 445 million years ago. In this pioneering study of mud cracks and deposits in the rocks, the researchers discovered that the shoreline existed to the south and that the water became deeper toward the north. By determining these ecological parameters, the ramp study provides a better understanding of environments during a time of significant ecological change. Malgieri says the approach can be applied to other basins throughout the world to create depth indicators in paeloenvironments.

Presenter: T.J. Malgieri, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Carlton Brett, Cameron Schalbach, Christopher Aucoin, UC; James Thomka (UC, University of Akron); Benjamin Dattilo, Indiana University Purdue University Ft. Wayne

UC Researchers Take a Unique Approach to Monitoring Groundwater Supplies Near Ohio Fracking Sites

A collaborative research project out of UC is examining effects of fracking on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Presenter: Claire Botner, a UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Amy Townsend-Small, UC assistant professor of geology

Sawing Through Seagrass to Reveal Clues to the Past

Kelsy Feser, a UC doctoral student in geology, is working at several sites around St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see if human developments impact marine life. The research focuses on shells of snails and clams that have piled up on the sea floor for thousands of years. Digging through layers of thick seagrass beds on the ocean floor, Feser can examine deeper shells that were abundant thousands of years ago and compare them to shallower layers that include living clams and snails. Early analysis indicates a greater population of potentially pollution-tolerant mussels in an area near a landfill on the island, compared with shells from much earlier time periods. Feser is doing this sea grass analysis around additional sites including tourist resorts, an oil refinery, a power plant and a marina. Funding for the research is provided by the Paleontological Society, the GSA, the American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department.

Presenter: Kelsy Feser, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller

Turning to the Present to Understand the Past

In order to properly interpret changes in climate, vegetation, or animal populations over time, it is necessary to establish a comparative baseline. Stella Mosher, a UC geology master’s student, is studying stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes in modern vegetation from the Canary Islands in order to quantify modern climatic and environmental patterns. Her findings will provide a crucial foundation for future UC research on regional paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental shifts.

Presenter: Stella Mosher, graduate student in geology

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, assistant professor of geology; Yurena Yanes, research assistant professor of geology

A Study on the Impact of Sea Spray

Sulfur is an element of interest in both geology and archaeology, because it can reveal information about the diets of ancient cultures. This study takes a novel approach to studying how sea spray can affect the sulfur isotope values in plants on a small island, focusing on the island of Trinidad. Researchers collected leaves from different plant species to get their sulfur isotope value, exploring whether wind direction played a role in how plants were influenced by the marine water from sea spray. Vegetation was collected from the edges of the island to the deeply forested areas. The study found that sulfur isotope values deeper inland and on the calmer west coast were dramatically lower in indicating marine water than vegetation along the edges and the east coast. The findings can help indicate the foraging activities of humans and animals. Funding for the study was supported by the Geological Society of America, the UC Graduate Student Association and the UC Department of Geology.

Presenter: Janine Sparks, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, UC assistant professor, geology/anthropology; William Gilhooly III, assistant professor, Earth Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Proxy Wars – The Paleobiology Data Debate

For the past several decades, paleobiologists have built large databases containing information on fossil plants and animals of all geological ages to investigate the timing and extent of major changes in biodiversity – changes such as mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of life. Biodiversity researcher Arnold Miller says that in building these databases, it can be a challenge to accurately identify species in the geological record, so it has been common for researchers to instead study biodiversity trends using data compiled at broader levels of biological classification, including the genus level, under the assumption that these patterns are effective proxies for what would be observed among species if the data were available. Miller has been involved in construction of The Paleobiology Database, an extensive public online resource that contains global genus- and species-level data, now permitting a direct, novel look at the similarities and differences between patterns at these two levels. Miller’s discussion aims to set the record straight as to when researchers can effectively use a genus as a proxy for a species and also when it’s inappropriate. This research is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Presenter: Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology

A Novel New Method for Examining the Distribution of Pores in Rocks

Oil and gas companies take an interest in the porosity of sedimentary rocks because those open spaces can be filled with fuel resources. Companies involved with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are also interested in porosity because it could be a source for storing wastewater as a result of fracking. In this unique study, UC researchers made pore-size measurements similar to those used in crystal size distribution (CSD) theory to determine distribution of pores as a function of their sizes, using thin sections of rock. In addition to providing accurate porosity distribution at a given depth, their approach can be extended to evaluate variation of pore spaces as a function of depth in a drill core, percent of pores in each size range, and pore types and pore geometry. The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology provided the rock samples used in the study. Funding for the study was supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Presenter: Ugurlu Ibrahim, master’s student in geology

Co-author: Attila Kilinc, professor of geology

Researchers Turn to 3-D Technology to Examine the Formation of Cliffband Landscapes

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. The method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – is used to study the formation of cliff landscapes in Colorado and Utah and to understand how the layered rock formations in the cliffs are affected by erosion.

Presenter: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Testing the Links Between Climate and Sedimentation in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

The Atacama Desert is used as an analog for understanding the surface of Mars. In some localities, there has been no activity for millions of years. UC researchers have been working along the flank of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, and this particular examination focuses on the large deposits of sediment that are transported down the plateau and gather at the base. The researchers are finding that their samples are not reflecting the million-year-old relics previously found on such expeditions, but may indicate more youthful activity possibly resulting from climatic events. The research is supported by a $273,634 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore glacio-geomorphic constraints on the climate history of subtropical northern Chile.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Uncovering the Explosive Mysteries Surrounding the Manganese of Northeast Bulgaria

UC’s geology collections hold minerals from field expeditions around the world, including manganese from the Obrochishte mines of northeastern Bulgaria. Found in the region’s sedimentary rock, manganese can be added to metals such as steel to improve strength. It’s widely believed that these manganese formations were the result of ocean water composition at the time the sediments were deposited in the ocean. In this presentation, UC researchers present new information on why they believe the manganese formations resulted from volcanic eruptions, perhaps during the Rupelian stage of the geologic time scale, when bentonite clay minerals were formed. The presentation evolved from an advance class project last spring under the direction of Warren Huff, a UC professor of geology.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Warren Huff, UC professor of geology; Christopher Aucoin; Michael Harrell; Thomas Malgieri; Barry Maynard; Cameron Schwalbach; Ibrahim Ugurlu; Antony Winrod

Two UC researchers will chair sessions at the GSA meeting: Doctoral student Gary Motz will chair the session, “Topics in Paleoecology: Modern Analogues and Ancient Systems,” on Oct. 19. Matt Vrazo, also a doctoral student in geology, is chairing “Paleontology: Trace Fossils, Taphonomy and Exceptional Preservation” on Oct. 21, and will present, “Taphonomic and Ecological Controls on Eurypterid Lagerstäten: A Model for Preservation in the Mid-Paleozoic.”

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UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

2015 DOE JGI’s science portfolio delves deeper into the Earth’s data mine

The U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), a DOE Office of Science user facility, has announced that 32 new projects have been selected for the 2015 Community Science Program (CSP). From sampling Antarctic lakes to Caribbean waters, and from plant root micro-ecosystems, to the subsurface underneath the water table in forested watersheds, the CSP 2015 projects portfolio highlights diverse environments where DOE mission-relevant science can be extracted.

“These projects catalyze JGI’s strategic shift in emphasis from solving an organism’s genome sequence to enabling an understanding of what this information enables organisms to do,” said Jim Bristow, DOE JGI Science Deputy who oversees the CSP. “To accomplish this, the projects selected combine DNA sequencing with large-scale experimental and computational capabilities, and in some cases include JGI’s new capability to write DNA in addition to reading it. These projects will expand research communities, and help to meet the DOE JGI imperative to translate sequence to function and ultimately into solutions for major energy and environmental problems.”

The CSP 2015 projects were selected by an external review panel from 76 full proposals received that resulted from 85 letters of intent submitted. The total allocation for the CSP 2015 portfolio is expected to exceed 60 trillion bases (terabases or Tb)-or the equivalent of 20,000 human genomes of plant, fungal and microbial genome sequences. The full list of projects may be found at http://jgi.doe.gov/our-projects/csp-plans/fy-2015-csp-plans/. The DOE JGI Community Science Program also accepts proposals for smaller-scale microbial, resequencing and DNA synthesis projects and reviews them twice a year. The CSP advances projects that harness DOE JGI’s capability in massive-scale DNA sequencing, analysis and synthesis in support of the DOE missions in alternative energy, global carbon cycling, and biogeochemistry.

Among the CSP 2015 projects selected is one from Regina Lamendella of Juniata College, who will investigate how microbial communities in Marcellus shale, the country’s largest shale gas field, respond to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas extraction. For example, as fracking uses chemicals, researchers are interested in how the microbial communities can break down environmental contaminants, and how they respond to the release of methane during oil extraction operations.

Some 1,500 miles south from those gas extraction sites, Monica Medina-Munoz of Penn State University will study the effect of thermal stress on the Caribbean coral Orbicella faveolata and the metabolic contribution of its coral host Symbiodinium. The calcium carbonate in coral reefs acts as carbon sinks, but reef health depends on microbial communities. If the photosynthetic symbionts are removed from the coral host, for example, the corals can die and calcification rates decrease. Understanding how to maintain stability in the coral-microbiome community can provide information on the coral’s contribution to the global ocean carbon cycle.

Longtime DOE JGI collaborator Jill Banfield of the University of California (UC), Berkeley is profiling the diversity of microbial communities found in the subsurface from the Rifle aquifer adjacent to the Colorado River. The subsurface is a massive, yet poorly understood, repository of organic carbon as well as greenhouse gases. Another research question, based on having the microbial populations close to both the water table and the river, is how they impact carbon, nitrogen and sulfur cycles. Her project is part of the first coordinated attempt to quantify the metabolic potential of an entire subsurface ecosystem under the aegis of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Subsurface Biogeochemistry Scientific Focus Area.

Banfield also successfully competed for a second CSP project to characterize the tree-root microbial interactions that occur below the soil mantle in the unsaturated zone or vadose zone, which extends into unweathered bedrock. The project’s goal is to understand how microbial communities this deep underground influence tree-based carbon fixation in forested watersheds by the Eel River in northwestern California.

Several fungal projects were selected for the 2015 CSP portfolio, including one led by Kabir Peay of Stanford University. He and his colleagues will study how fungal communities in animal feces decompose organic matter. His project has a stated end goal of developing a model system that emulates the ecosystem at Point Reyes National Seashore, where Tule elk are the largest native herbivores.

Another selected fungal project comes from Timothy James of University of Michigan, who will explore the so-called “dark matter fungi” – those not represented in culture collections. By sequencing several dozen species of unculturable zoosporic fungi from freshwater, soils and animal feces, he and his colleagues hope to develop a kingdom-wide fungal phylogenetic framework.

Christian Wurzbacher of Germany’s the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB, will characterize fungi from the deep sea to peatlands to freshwater streams to understand the potentially novel adaptations that are necessary to thrive in their aquatic environments. The genomic information would provide information on their metabolic capabilities for breaking down cellulose, lignin and other plant cell wall components, and animal polymers such as keratin and chitin.

Many of the selected projects focus on DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genomes, with most centered on the poplar (Populus trichocarpa.) For example, longtime DOE JGI collaborator Steve DiFazio of West Virginia University is interested in poplar but will study its reproductive development with the help of a close relative, the willow (Salix purpurea). With its shorter generation time, the plant is a good model system and comparator for understanding sex determination, which can help bioenergy crop breeders by, for example, either accelerating or preventing flowering.

Another project comes from Posy Busby of the University of Washington, who will study the interactions between the poplar tree and its fungal, non-pathogenic symbionts or endophytes. As disease-causing pathogens interact with endophytes in leaves, he noted in his proposal, understanding the roles and functions of endophytes could prove useful to meeting future fuel and food requirements.

Along the lines of poplar endophytes, Carolin Frank at UC Merced will investigate the nitrogen-fixing endophytes in poplar, willow, and pine, with the aim of improving growth in grasses and agricultural crops under nutrient-poor conditions.

Rotem Sorek from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel takes a different approach starting from the hypothesis that poplar trees have an adaptive immunity system rooted in genome-encoded immune memory. Through deep sequencing of tissues from single poplar trees (some over a century old, others younger) his team hopes to gain insights into the tree genome’s short-term evolution and how its gene expression profiles change over time, as well as to predict how trees might respond under various climate change scenarios.

Tackling a different DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genome, Debbie Laudencia-Chingcuangco of the USDA-ARS will develop a genome-wide collection of several thousand mutants of the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to help domesticate the grasses that are being considered as candidate bioenergy feedstocks. This work is being done in collaboration with researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, as the team there considers Brachypodium “critical to achieving its mission of developing productive energy crops that can be easily processed into fuels.”

Continuing the theme of candidate bioenergy grasses, Kankshita Swaminathan from the University of Illinois will study gene expression in polyploidy grasses Miscanthus and sugarcane, comparing them against the closely related diploid grass sorghum to understand how these plants recycle nutrients.

Baohong Zhang of East Carolina University also focused on a bioenergy grass, and his project will look at the microRNAs in switchgrass. These regulatory molecules are each just a couple dozen nucleotides in length and can downregulate (decrease the quantity of) a cellular component. With a library of these small transcripts, he and his team hope to identify the gene expression variation associated with desirable biofuel traits in switchgrass such as increased biomass and responses to drought and salinity stressors.

Nitin Baliga of the Institute of Systems Biology will use DOE JGI genome sequences to build a working model of the networks that regulate lipid accumulation in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, still another DOE JGI Plant Flagship Genome and a model for characterizing biofuel production by algae.

Other accepted projects include:

The study of the genomes of 32 fungi of the Agaricales order, including 16 fungi to be sequenced for the first time, will be carried out by Jose Maria Barrasa of Spain’s University of Alcala. While many of the basidiomycete fungi involved in wood degradation that have been sequenced are from the Polyporales, he noted in his proposal, many of the fungi involved in breaking down leaf litter and buried wood are from the order Agaricales.

Now at the University of Connecticut, Jonathan Klassen conducted postdoctoral studies at GLBRC researcher Cameron Currie’s lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His project will study interactions in ant-microbial community fungus gardens in three states to learn more about how the associated bacterial metagenomes contribute to carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Hinsby Cadillo-Quiroz, at Arizona State University, will conduct a study of the microbial communities in the Amazon peatlands to understand their roles in both emitting greenhouse gases and in storing and cycling carbon. The peatlands are hotspots of soil organic carbon accumulation, and in the tropical regions, they are estimated to hold between 11 percent and 14 percent, or nearly 90 gigatons, of the global carbon stored in soils.

Barbara Campbell, Clemson University will study carbon cycling mechanisms of active bacteria and associated viruses in the freshwater to marine transition zone of the Delaware Bay. Understanding the microbes’ metabolism would help researchers understand they capabilities with regard to dealing with contaminants, and their roles in the nitrogen, sulfur and carbon cycles.

Jim Fredrickson of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will characterize functional profiles of microbial mats in California, Washington and Yellowstone National Park to understand various functions such as how they produce hydrogen and methane, and break down cellulose.

Joyce Loper of USDA-ARS will carry out a comparative analysis of all Pseudomonas bacteria getting from DOE JGI the sequences of just over 100 type strains to infer a evolutionary history of the this genus — a phylogeny — to characterize the genomic diversity, and determine the distribution of genes linked to key observable traits in this non-uniform group of bacteria.

Holly Simon of Oregon Health & Science University is studying microbial populations in the Columbia River estuary, in part to learn how they enhance greenhouse gas CO2 methane and nitrous oxide production.

Michael Thon from Spain’s University of Salamanca will explore sequences of strains of the Colletotrichum species complex, which include fungal pathogens that infect many crops. One of the questions he and his team will ask is how these fungal strains have adapted to break down the range of plant cell wall compositions.

Kathleen Treseder of UC Irvine will study genes involved in sensitivity to higher temperatures in fungi from a warming experiment in an Alaskan boreal forest. The team’s plan is to fold the genomic information gained into a trait-based ecosystem model called DEMENT to predict carbon dioxide emissions under global warming.

Mary Wildermuth of UC Berkeley will study nearly a dozen genomes of powdery mildew fungi, including three that infect designated bioenergy crops. The project will identify the mechanisms by which the fungi successfully infect plants, information that could lead to the development of crops with improved resistance to fungal infection and limiting fungicide use to allow more sustainable agricultural practices.

Several researchers who have previously collaborated with the DOE JGI have new projects:

Ludmila Chistoserdova from the University of Washington had a pioneering collaboration with the DOE JGI to study microbial communities in Lake Washington. In her new project, she and her team will look at the microbes in the Lake Washington sediment to understand their role in metabolizing the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Rick Cavicchioli of Australia’s University of New South Wales will track how microbial communities change throughout a complete annual cycle in three millennia-old Antarctic lakes and a near-shore marine site. By establishing what the microbes do in different seasons, he noted in his proposal, he and his colleagues hope to learn which microbial processes change and about the factors that control the evolution and speciation of marine-derived communities in cold environments.

With samples collected from surface waters down to the deep ocean, Steve Hallam from Canada’s University of British Columbia will explore metabolic pathways and compounds involved in marine carbon cycling processes to understand how carbon is regulated in the oceans.

The project of Hans-Peter Klenk, of DSMZ in Germany, will generate sequences of 1,000 strains of Actinobacteria, which represent the third most populated bacterial phylum and look for genes that encode cellulose-degrading enzymes or enzymes involved in synthesizing novel, natural products.

Han Wosten of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University will carry out a functional genomics approach to wood degradation by looking at Agaricomycetes, in particular the model white rot fungus Schizophyllum commune and the more potent wood-degrading white rots Phanaerochaete chrysosporium and Pleurotus ostreatus that the DOE JGI has previously sequenced.

Wen-Tso Liu of the University of Illinois and his colleagues want to understand the microbial ecology in anaerobic digesters, key components of the wastewater treatment process. They will study microbial communities in anaerobic digesters from the United States, East Asia and Europe to understand the composition and function of the microbes as they are harnessed for this low-cost municipal wastewater strategy efficiently removes waster and produces methane as a sustainable energy source.

Another project that involves wastewater, albeit indirectly, comes from Erica Young of the University of Wisconsin. She has been studying algae grown in wastewater to track how they use nitrogen and phosphorus, and how cellulose and lipids are produced. Her CSP project will characterize the relationship between the algae and the bacteria that help stabilize these algal communities, particularly the diversity of the bacterial community and the pathways and interactions involved in nutrient uptake and carbon sequestration.

Previous CSP projects and other DOE JGI collaborations are highlighted in some of the DOE JGI Annual User Meeting talks that can be seen here: http://usermeeting.jgi.doe.gov/past-speakers/. The 10th Annual Genomics of Energy and Environment Meeting will be held March 24-26, 2015 in Walnut Creek, Calif. A preliminary speakers list is posted here (http://usermeeting.jgi.doe.gov/) and registration will be opened in the first week of November.

Rewriting the history of volcanic forcing during the past 2,000 years

Locations of Antarctic ice core sites used for volcanic sulfate aerosol deposition reconstruction (right); a  DRI scientist examines a freshly drilled ice core in the field before ice cores are analyzed in DRI's ultra-trace ice core analytical laboratory. -  M. Sigl
Locations of Antarctic ice core sites used for volcanic sulfate aerosol deposition reconstruction (right); a DRI scientist examines a freshly drilled ice core in the field before ice cores are analyzed in DRI’s ultra-trace ice core analytical laboratory. – M. Sigl

A team of scientists led by Michael Sigl and Joe McConnell of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI) has completed the most accurate and precise reconstruction to date of historic volcanic sulfate emissions in the Southern Hemisphere.

The new record, described in a manuscript published today in the online edition of Nature Climate Change, is derived from a large number of individual ice cores collected at various locations across Antarctica and is the first annually resolved record extending through the Common Era (the last 2,000 years of human history).

“This record provides the basis for a dramatic improvement in existing reconstructions of volcanic emissions during recent centuries and millennia,” said the report’s lead author Michael Sigl, a postdoctoral fellow and specialist in DRI’s unique ultra-trace ice core analytical laboratory, located on the Institute’s campus in Reno, Nevada.

These reconstructions are critical to accurate model simulations used to assess past natural and anthropogenic climate forcing. Such model simulations underpin environmental policy decisions including those aimed at regulating greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions to mitigate projected global warming.

Powerful volcanic eruptions are one of the most significant causes of climate variability in the past because of the large amounts of sulfur dioxide they emit, leading to formation of microscopic particles known as volcanic sulfate aerosols. These aerosols reflect more of the sun’s radiation back to space, cooling the Earth. Past volcanic events are measured through sulfate deposition records found in ice cores and have been linked to short-term global and regional cooling.

This effort brought together the most extensive array of ice core sulfate data in the world, including the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide ice core – arguably the most detailed record of volcanic sulfate in the Southern Hemisphere. In total, the study incorporated 26 precisely synchronized ice core records collected in an array of 19 sites from across Antarctica.

“This work is the culmination of more than a decade of collaborative ice core collection and analysis in our lab here at DRI,” said Joe McConnell, a DRI research professor who developed the continuous-flow analysis system used to analyze the ice cores.

McConnell, a member of several research teams that collected the cores (including the 2007-2009 Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica and the WAIS Divide project that reached a depth of 3,405 meters in 2011), added, “The new record identifies 116 individual volcanic events during the last 2000 years.”

“Our new record completes the period from years 1 to 500 AD, for which there were no reconstructions previously, and significantly improves the record for years 500 to 1500 AD,” Sigl added. This new record also builds on DRI’s previous work as part of the international Past Global Changes (PAGES) effort to help reconstruct an accurate 2,000-year-long global temperature for individual continents.

This study involved collaborating researchers from the United States, Japan, Germany, Norway, Australia, and Italy. International collaborators contributed ice core samples for analysis at DRI as well as ice core measurements and climate modeling.

According to Yuko Motizuki from RIKEN (Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution), “The collaboration between DRI, National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR), and RIKEN just started in the last year, and we were very happy to be able to use the two newly obtained ice core records taken from Dome Fuji, where the volcanic signals are clearly visible. This is because precipitation on the site mainly contains stratospheric components.” Dr. Motizuki analyzed the samples collected by the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition.

Simulations of volcanic sulfate transport performed with a coupled aerosol-climate model were compared to the ice core observations and used to investigate spatial patterns of sulfate deposition to Antarctica.

“Both observations and model results show that not all eruptions lead to the same spatial pattern of sulfate deposition,” said Matthew Toohey from the German institute GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. He added, “Spatial variability in sulfate deposition means that the accuracy of volcanic sulfate reconstructions depends strongly on having a sufficient number of ice core records from as many different regions of Antarctica as possible.”

With such an accurately synchronized and robust array, Sigl and his colleagues were able to revise reconstructions of past volcanic aerosol loading that are widely used today in climate model simulations. Most notably, the research found that the two largest volcanic eruptions in recent Earth history (Samalas in 1257 and Kuwae in 1458) deposited 30 to 35 percent less sulfate in Antarctica, suggesting that these events had a weaker cooling effect on global climate than previously thought.

Volcanoes contribute to recent warming ‘hiatus’

Volcanic eruptions in the early part of the 21st century have cooled the planet, according to a study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This cooling partly offset the warming produced by greenhouse gases.

Despite continuing increases in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, and in the total heat content of the ocean, global-mean temperatures at the surface of the planet and in the troposphere (the lowest portion of the Earth’s atmosphere) have shown relatively little warming since 1998. This so-called ‘slow-down’ or ‘hiatus’ has received considerable scientific, political and popular attention. The volcanic contribution to the ‘slow-down’ is the subject of a new paper appearing in the Feb. 23 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Volcanic eruptions inject sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere. If the eruptions are large enough to add sulfur dioxide to the stratosphere (the atmospheric layer above the troposphere), the gas forms tiny droplets of sulfuric acid, also known as “volcanic aerosols.” These droplets reflect some portion of the incoming sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere.

“In the last decade, the amount of volcanic aerosol in the stratosphere has increased, so more sunlight is being reflected back into space,” said Lawrence Livermore climate scientist Benjamin Santer, who serves as lead author of the study. “This has created a natural cooling of the planet and has partly offset the increase in surface and atmospheric temperatures due to human influence.”

From 2000-2012, emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere have increased — as they have done since the Industrial Revolution. This human-induced change typically causes the troposphere to warm and the stratosphere to cool. In contrast, large volcanic eruptions cool the troposphere and warm the stratosphere. The researchers report that early 21st century volcanic eruptions have contributed to this recent “warming hiatus,” and that most climate models have not accurately accounted for this effect.

“The recent slow-down in observed surface and tropospheric warming is a fascinating detective story,” Santer said. “There is not a single culprit, as some scientists have claimed. Multiple factors are implicated. One is the temporary cooling effect of internal climate noise. Other factors are the external cooling influences of 21st century volcanic activity, an unusually low and long minimum in the last solar cycle, and an uptick in Chinese emissions of sulfur dioxide.

” The real scientific challenge is to obtain hard quantitative estimates of the contributions of each of these factors to the slow-down.”

The researchers performed two different statistical tests to determine whether recent volcanic eruptions have cooling effects that can be distinguished from the intrinsic variability of the climate. The team found evidence for significant correlations between volcanic aerosol observations and satellite-based estimates of lower tropospheric temperatures as well as the sunlight reflected back to space by the aerosol particles.

“This is the most comprehensive observational evaluation of the role of volcanic activity on climate in the early part of the 21st century,” said co-author Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards professor of atmospheric chemistry and climate science at MIT. “We assess the contributions of volcanoes on temperatures in the troposphere – the lowest layer of the atmosphere – and find they’ve certainly played some role in keeping the Earth cooler.”

Shale sequestration, water for energy & soil microbes

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will present a variety of their research at the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, which runs Monday, Dec. 9 through Friday, Dec. 13 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. Among the noteworthy PNNL research scheduled to be discussed are carbon sequestration in empty shale reservoirs, water needs for future energy production and how soil microbes adjust to climate change. More information is below.

Chemistry informs economics of carbon sequestration at shale gas sites

Shale formations – underground mixes of mud, minerals and gas that have sparked a natural gas drilling boom in the United States – could also help power plants meet proposed EPA emission regulations by permanently storing carbon dioxide. But while many pollution-emitting power plants are located near shale formations, little is known about the complex chemistry of shales reacting with pumped-in carbon emissions. The issue is complicated by the variety of different clay minerals that make up shales. PNNL scientists are getting to the bottom of these details by conducting laboratory experiments and computer modeling research to determine how carbon dioxide, methane and common power plant byproducts such as sulfur dioxide react with the four clays common in shales. Early results show the clay mineral montmorillonite expands to hold more carbon emissions under certain conditions. Tests also show the clay kaolinite has a sweet spot to absorb emissions with an ideal combination of pressure and carbon dioxide concentrations. PNNL geologist Todd Schaef will present these and other results, including a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of carbon sequestration at the United States’ shale gas reservoirs.

MR21B-5: “CO2 Utilization and Storage in Shale Gas Reservoirs,” 9-9:15 a.m., Tuesday, Dec. 10, 301 (Moscone South).

Water consumption to increase with future U.S. energy needs

Future power plants can use more water-efficient cooling technologies to withdraw less water from rivers and ponds, but PNNL research shows there is a tradeoff. Water-efficient cooling technologies typically reuse water instead of using it just once, but they also warm the reused water and cause evaporation that removes water from the local ecosystem. PNNL used a computer model to estimate future energy generation and associated water use for each of the 50 states. The detailed analysis found while the nation’s energy sector could withdraw less water with advanced cooling technologies, the amount of water consumed through evaporation would increase. The study also identified several other trends, such as energy-related water withdrawals decreasing in the Eastern U.S. while they increase in the West. PNNL environmental scientist Lu Liu will present a poster on this research.

H11J-1274: “An integrated assessment of energy-water nexus at the state level in the United States: Projections and analyses under different scenarios through 2095,” 8 a.m. – 12:20 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 10, Hall A-C (Moscone South).

Climate change alters bacteria behavior

Climate change doesn’t affect just polar bears and ice caps; it also impacts the tiny microbes that help plants soak up nutrients in the soil. New research shows transplanted soil bacteria adjust their enzyme production to better survive in a new climate. The findings are a result of a unique study where soil samples were transplanted between two elevations about 1700 feet apart on an isolated mountain in rural Washington state. The scientists gave the transplanted soil about 17 years to settle into its new surroundings and then compared its bacteria with bacteria in unmoved soil samples. The researchers found bacteria made more of some enzymes in the higher-up soil, where it’s wetter and cooler and there’s more vegetation. The enzymes found in greater abundance break down cellulose – the tough, pithy material that gives plants structure – and chitin – another tough material that strengthens fungal cell walls. The researchers hypothesize the higher-elevation bacteria produce more of those enzymes because the richer soils there are home to more plants and fungi for the bacteria to digest. Better understanding how climate impacts microbes can also help us better understand climate change, as many of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change occur as a result of interactions with microbes. PNNL microbiologist Vanessa Bailey will present a poster on this research.

B51D-0311: “Bacterial Community Structure after a 17-year Reciprocal Soil Transplant Simulating Climate Change with Elevation,” 8 a.m. – Noon, Friday, Dec. 13, Hall A-C (Moscone South).

Rain as acidic as lemon juice may have contributed to ancient mass extinction

Rain as acidic as undiluted lemon juice may have played a part in killing off plants and organisms around the world during the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history.

About 252 million years ago, the end of the Permian period brought about a worldwide collapse known as the Great Dying, during which a vast majority of species went extinct.

The cause of such a massive extinction is a matter of scientific debate, centering on several potential causes, including an asteroid collision, similar to what likely killed off the dinosaurs 186 million years later; a gradual, global loss of oxygen in the oceans; and a cascade of environmental events triggered by massive volcanic eruptions in a region known today as the Siberian Traps.

Now scientists at MIT and elsewhere have simulated this last possibility, creating global climate models of scenarios in which repeated bursts of volcanism spew gases, including sulfur, into the atmosphere. From their simulations, they found that sulfur emissions were significant enough to create widespread acid rain throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with pH levels reaching 2 – as acidic as undiluted lemon juice. They say such acidity may have been sufficient to disfigure plants and stunt their growth, contributing to their ultimate extinction.

“Imagine you’re a plant that’s growing happily in the latest Permian,” says Benjamin Black, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “It’s been getting hotter and hotter, but perhaps your species has had time to adjust to that. But then quite suddenly, over the course of a few months, the rain begins to sizzle with sulfuric acid. It would be quite a shock if you were that plant.”

Black is lead author of a paper reporting the group’s results, which appears in the journal Geology. Co-authors include Jean-François Lamarque, Christine Shields, and Jeffrey Kiehl from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Linda Elkins-Tanton of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Lemon juice spike

Geologists who have examined the rock record in Siberia have observed evidence of immense volcanism that came in short bursts beginning near the end of the Permian period and continuing for another million years. The volume of magma totaled several million cubic kilometers – enough to completely blanket the continental United States. This boiling stew of magma likely released carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, leading to gradual but powerful global warming.

The eruptions may also have released large clouds of sulfur, which ultimately returned to Earth’s surface as acid rain. Black, who has spent several summers in Siberia collecting samples to measure sulfur and other chemicals preserved in igneous rocks, used these measurements, along with other evidence, to develop simulations of magmatic activity in the end-Permian world.

The group simulated 27 scenarios, each approximating the release of gases from a plausible volcanic episode, including medium eruptions, large eruptions, and magma erupted through explosive pipes in the Earth’s crust. The researchers included a wide range of gases in their simulations, based on estimates from chemical analyses and thermal modeling. They then tracked water in the atmosphere, and the interactions among various gases and aerosols, to calculate the pH of rain.

The results showed that both carbon dioxide and volcanic sulfur could have significantly affected the acidity of rain at the end of the Permian. Levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases may have risen rapidly at the time, in part because of Siberian volcanism. According to their simulations, the researchers found that this elevated carbon dioxide could have increased rain’s acidity by an order of magnitude.

Adding sulfur emissions to the mix, they found that acidity further spiked to a pH of 2 – as acidic as undiluted lemon juice – and that such acidic rain may have fallen over most of the Northern Hemisphere. After an eruption ended, the researchers found that pH levels in rain bounced back, becoming less acidic within one year. However, with repeated bursts of volcanic activity, Black says the resulting swings in acid rain could have greatly stressed terrestrial species.

“Plants and animals wouldn’t have much time to adapt to these changes in the pH of rain,” Black says. “I think it certainly contributed to the environmental stress which was making it difficult for plants and animals to survive. At a certain point you have to ask, ‘How much can a plant take?'”

Life as an end-Permian organism

In addition to acid rain, the researchers modeled ozone depletion resulting from volcanic activity. While ozone depletion is more difficult to model than acid rain, their results suggest that a mix of gases released into the atmosphere may have destroyed 5 to 65 percent of the ozone layer, substantially increasing species’ exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The greatest ozone depletion occurred near the poles.

Going forward, Black hopes paleontologists and geochemists will consider the results as a point of comparison for their own observations of the end-Permian mass extinction. In the meantime, he says he now has a much more vivid picture of that catastrophic time.

“It’s not just one thing that was unpleasant,” Black says. “It’s this whole host of really nasty atmospheric and environmental effects. These results really made me feel sorry for end-Permian organisms.”

Acid raid, ozone depletion contributed to ancient extinction

This photo taken along Kotuy River in Arctic Siberia shows the base of the Siberian Traps volcanic sequence. -  Benjamin Black
This photo taken along Kotuy River in Arctic Siberia shows the base of the Siberian Traps volcanic sequence. – Benjamin Black

Around 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, there was a mass extinction so severe that it remains the most traumatic known species die-off in Earth’s history. Some researchers have suggested that this extinction was triggered by contemporaneous volcanic eruptions in Siberia. New results from a team including Director of Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism Linda Elkins-Tanton show that the atmospheric effects of these eruptions could have been devastating. Their work is published in Geology.

The mass extinction included the sudden loss of more than 90 percent of marine species and more than 70 percent of terrestrial species and set the stage for the rise of the dinosaurs. The fossil record suggests that ecological diversity did not fully recover until several million years after the main pulse of the extinction.One leading candidate for the cause of this event is gas released from a large swath of volcanic rock in Russia called the Siberian Traps. Using advanced 3-D modeling techniques, the team, led by Benjamin Black of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was able to predict the impacts of gas released from the Siberian Traps on the end-Permian atmosphere.

Their results indicate that volcanic releases of both carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) could have created highly acidic rain, potentially leaching the soil of nutrients and damaging plants and other vulnerable terrestrial organisms. Releases of halogen-bearing compounds such as methyl chloride could also have resulted in global ozone collapse.

The volcanic activity was likely episodic, producing pulses of acid rain and ozone depletion. The team concluded that the resulting drastic fluctuations in pH and ultraviolet radiation, combined with an overall temperature increase from greenhouse gas emissions, could have contributed to the end-Permian mass extinction on land.

The team also included Jean-François Lamarque, Christine Shields, and Jeffrey Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Oxygen, phosphorous and early life on Earth

Two billion years ago the Earth system was recovering from perhaps the single-most profound modification of its surface environments: the oxygenation of the atmosphere and oceans. This led to a series of major changes in global biogeochemical cycles, as a team around Aivo Lepland of the Norwegian Geological Survey NGU reports in the latest online edition of “Nature Geoscience“.

This also resulted in the distribution of one of life’s key elements, phosphorous. Studies on the unique organic-rich Zaonega rock formation preserved in Carelia, NW Russia, with an age of around two billion years has revealed an astonishing result: “The formation of Earth’s earliest phosphorites was influenced strongly, if not controlled completely, by the activity of sulfur bacteria”, says co-author Richard Wirth of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, who analyzed the rock samples with an electron microscope. “This activity occurred in an oil field setting that had been influenced by active volcanism and associated venting and seeping.” In the modern world, sulfur bacteria inhabit upwelling vent and seep areas known as “Black Smokers” and mediate phosphorite formation. The authors therefore conclude that the formation of the earliest worldwide phosphorites 2 billion years ago can be linked to the establishment of sulfur bacteria habitats, triggered by the oxygenation of the Earth.