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Learning to live with oxygen on early Earth

hemical reactions that happen as the carbon wends its way through an organism's metabolism. There are two stable isotopes of carbon found in nature--12C and 13C--which differ only in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. By far the most abundant variety is in the lighter, 12C. About 1% is 13C, a heavier sibling with an additional neutron; it is the key to understanding photosynthetic organisms.

"Photosynthetic microbes evolved in the shallow water where light was plentiful," explained Eigenbrode. "They used light and CO2 to produce their food, like cyanobacteria do today. They gobbled up 12C and 13C, which became part of the organisms. The results are recorded in the rocks containing the remains for us to find billions of years later. Organisms leave behind different mixes of 12C and 13C depending on what they eat and how they metabolize it. Changes in these chemical fingerprints tell us about changes in how organisms got their energy and food."

In the Archean, microbes that could not live with oxygen--anaerobic organisms--ended up with relatively small amounts of 13C. As oxygen became available in shallow water due to oxygen-producing photosynthesis, anaerobic organisms were out-competed by microbes that had adapted to oxygen. As a result, the amount of 13C increased--first in shallow water, then in deeper water. Changes in the mix of carbon isotopes in these late Archean rocks indicate microbes were learning to live with oxygen well before the atmosphere began accumulating noticeable amounts of oxygen.


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Contact: Jennifer Eigenbrode
j.eigenbrode@gl.ciw.edu
202-478-8981
Carnegie Institution
16-Oct-2006


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