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Low marine sulphate and protracted oxygenation of the Proterozoic biosphere.

Nature

Time Factors, metabolism, Sulfates, chemistry, Seawater, Oxygen, Geologic Sediments, Eukaryotic Cells, Environment, Carbonates, Calcium Sulfate, Biological Evolution, Atmosphere

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      Abstract

      Progressive oxygenation of the Earth's early biosphere is thought to have resulted in increased sulphide oxidation during continental weathering, leading to a corresponding increase in marine sulphate concentration. Accurate reconstruction of marine sulphate reservoir size is therefore important for interpreting the oxygenation history of early Earth environments. Few data, however, specifically constrain how sulphate concentrations may have changed during the Proterozoic era (2.5-0.54 Gyr ago). Prior to 2.2 Gyr ago, when oxygen began to accumulate in the Earth's atmosphere, sulphate concentrations are inferred to have been <1 mM and possibly <200 microM, on the basis of limited isotopic variability preserved in sedimentary sulphides and experimental data showing suppressed isotopic fractionation at extremely low sulphate concentrations. By 0.8 Gyr ago, oxygen and thus sulphate levels may have risen significantly. Here we report large stratigraphic variations in the sulphur isotope composition of marine carbonate-associated sulphate, and use a rate-dependent model for sulphur isotope change that allows us to track changes in marine sulphate concentrations throughout the Proterozoic. Our calculations indicate sulphate levels between 1.5 and 4.5 mM, or 5-15 per cent of modern values, for more than 1 Gyr after initial oxygenation of the Earth's biosphere. Persistence of low oceanic sulphate demonstrates the protracted nature of Earth's oxygenation. It links biospheric evolution to temporal patterns in the depositional behaviour of marine iron- and sulphur-bearing minerals, biological cycling of redox-sensitive elements and availability of trace metals essential to eukaryotic development.

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      Most cited references 28

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      Mass-independent isotopic signatures for delta(33)S, delta(34)S, and delta(36)S from sulfide and sulfate in Precambrian rocks indicate that a change occurred in the sulfur cycle between 2090 and 2450 million years ago (Ma). Before 2450 Ma, the cycle was influenced by gas-phase atmospheric reactions. These atmospheric reactions also played a role in determining the oxidation state of sulfur, implying that atmospheric oxygen partial pressures were low and that the roles of oxidative weathering and of microbial oxidation and reduction of sulfur were minimal. Atmospheric fractionation processes should be considered in the use of sulfur isotopes to study the onset and consequences of microbial fractionation processes in Earth's early history.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            10.1038/nature02974
            15483609

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