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Evolution upset: Oxygen-making microbes came last, not first

Get ready to rewrite those biology textbooks again. Although the "lowly" blue-green algae, or Cyanobacteria, have long been credited as one of Earth's earliest life forms and the source of the oxygen in the early Earth's atmosphere, they might be neither.

By creating a new genetic family tree of the world's most primitive bacteria and comparing it to the geochemistry of ancient iron and sulfur deposits, Carrine Blank of Washington University has found evidence that instead of Cyanobacteria being very ancient, they may have appeared much later, perhaps as much as a billion years later, than previously assumed. Blank will present the results of her research at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

"What paleontologists and geologists have had to do is reconstruct evolutionary events because biologists haven't had a very good evolutionary tree of bacteria," says Blank. To get a better family tree, Blank took advantage of growing genome archives and studied 38 genes in the whole gene sequences of 53 species of extant bacteria, including Cyanobacteria. By mapping out the rates of change in the slowest-changing genes, Blank was able to generate a bacterial evolutionary history that shows cyanobacteria branching off last.

If correct, Blank's tree essentially flip-flops the traditional order in which bacteria appeared on the scene.

Traditionally, it has been thought that Cyanobacteria came on stage very early in Earth's history, perhaps at least 3.5 billion years ago. They produced the first abundant oxygen molecules. All that oxygen bound to the abundant free iron in the oceans and rained to the seafloor creating the economically important banded iron formations. The advent of atmospheric oxygen also caused sulfide minerals on land to break down into sulfates and wash into the oceans where sulfur-loving bacteria gobbled them up. The earliest geological evidence for sulfur bacteria is cha
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Contact: Ann Cairns
acairns@geosociety.org
303-357-1056
Geological Society of America
25-Oct-2002


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