It has long puzzled scientists why, after 3 billion years of nothing more complex than algae, complex animals suddenly started to appear on Earth. Now, a team of researchers has put forward some of the strongest evidence yet to support the hypothesis that high levels of oxygen in the oceans were crucial for the emergence of skeletal animals 550 million years ago.
The new study is the first to distinguish between bodies of water with low and high levels of oxygen. It shows that poorly oxygenated waters did not support the complex life that evolved immediately prior to the Cambrian period, suggesting the presence of oxygen was a key factor in the appearance of these animals.
Lead author Dr Rosalie Tostevin completed the study analyses as part of her PhD with UCL Earth Sciences, and is now in the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. She said: ‘The question of why it took so long for complex animal life to appear on Earth has puzzled scientists for a long time. One argument has been that evolution simply doesn’t happen very quickly, but another popular hypothesis suggests that a rise in the level of oxygen in the oceans gave simple life-forms the fuel they needed to evolve skeletons, mobility and other typical features of modern animals.
‘Although there is geochemical evidence for a rise in oxygen in the oceans around the time of the appearance of more complex animals, it has been really difficult to prove a causal link. By teasing apart waters with high and low levels of oxygen, and demonstrating that early skeletal animals were restricted to well-oxygenated waters, we have provided strong evidence that the availability of oxygen was a key requirement for the development of these animals. However, these well-oxygenated environments may have been in short supply, limiting habitat space in the ocean for the earliest animals.’
The team, which included other geochemists, palaeoecologists and geologists from UCL and the universities of Edinburgh, Leeds and Cambridge, as well as the Geological Survey of Namibia, analysed the chemical elemental composition of rock samples from the ancient seafloor in the Nama Group – a group of extremely well-preserved rocks in Namibia that are abundant with fossils of early Cloudina, Namacalathus and Namapoikia animals.
The researchers found that levels of elements such as cerium and iron detected in the rocks showed that low-oxygen conditions occurred between well-oxygenated surface waters and fully ‘anoxic’ deep waters. Although abundant in well-oxygenated environments, early skeletal animals did not occupy oxygen-impoverished regions of the shelf, demonstrating that oxygen availability (probably >10 micromolar) was a key requirement for the development of early animal-based ecosystems.
Professor Graham Shields-Zhou (UCL Earth Sciences), one of the co-authors and Dr Tostevin’s PhD supervisor, said: ‘We honed in on the last 10 million years of the Proterozoic Eon as the interval of Earth’s history when today’s major animal groups first grew shells and churned up the sediment, and found that oxygen levels were important to the relationship between environmental conditions and the early development of animals.’
A new study in the April 22 edition of Science reveals that volcanic activity associated with the plate-tectonic movement of continents may be responsible for climatic shifts from hot to cold over tens and hundreds of millions of years throughout much of Earth’s history.
The study, led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences, addresses why the Earth has fluctuated from periods when the planet was covered in ice to times when even the polar regions were ice-free.
The study explores very long-term shifts in Earth’s baseline climate, not short-term or human-induced climate change.
Lead researcher Ryan McKenzie said the team found that periods when volcanoes along continental arcs were more active coincided with warmer, or greenhouse, conditions over the past 720 million years. Conversely, periods when continental arc volcanos were less active coincided with colder, or icehouse, conditions.
Continental volcanic arc systems such as the Andes Mountains are created at active continental margins where two tectonic plates meet and the oceanic plate descends under the continental plate, forming a subduction zone. When this happens, magma mixes with carbon trapped in the Earth’s crust and releases carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the atmosphere when volcanoes in the system erupt.
“Continental arc systems are plumbed through the Earth’s crust and they tend to interact with carbon reservoir rock preserved beneath the surface,” said McKenzie, who began the work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Jackson School and finished the study at Yale University.
Scientist have long known that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere influences the Earth’s climate, McKenzie said. The unanswered question is what caused the fluctuations in CO2 observed in the geologic record. Other theories have suggested that geological forces such as mountain building have, at different times in the planet’s history, introduced large amounts of new material to the Earth’s surface, and weathering of that material has drawn CO2 out of the atmosphere. The new study points to the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere, rather than the amount removed from it, as the primary driver of Earth’s climate.
Using nearly 200 published studies and their own fieldwork and data, researchers created a global database to reconstruct the volcanic history of continental margins over the past 720 million years.
“We studied sedimentary basins next to former volcanic arcs, which were eroded away over hundreds of millions of years,” said co-author Brian Horton, a professor in the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences. “The distinguishing part of our study is that we looked at a very long geologic record – 720 million years – through multiple greenhouse-icehouse events.”
Specifically, researchers looked at the uranium-lead crystallization ages of the mineral zircon, which is largely created during continental volcanic arc activity. Zircon is less common in other types of volcanic settings, such as hot spots like Hawaii or island arc volcanoes such as the Marianas, so the mineral can be used to track continental arc volcanism. For the study, they looked at data for roughly 120,000 zircon grains from thousands of samples across the globe.
“We’re looking at changes in zircon production on various continents throughout Earth’s history and seeing how the changes correspond with the various icehouse and greenhouse transitions,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, we find that during intervals of high zircon production we have greenhouse conditions, and as zircon production diminishes, we see a shift into our icehouse conditions.”
The cooler icehouse periods tended to correlate with the assembly of the Earth’s supercontinents, which was a time of diminished continental volcanism, Horton said. The warmer greenhouse periods correlated with continental breakup, a time of enhanced continental volcanism.
The asteroid that slammed into the ocean off Mexico 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs probably rang the Earth like a bell, triggering volcanic eruptions around the globe that may have contributed to the devastation, according to a team of UC Berkeley geophysicists.
Specifically, the researchers argue that the impact likely triggered most of the immense eruptions of lava in India known as the Deccan Traps, explaining the “uncomfortably close” coincidence between the Deccan Traps eruptions and the impact, which has always cast doubt on the theory that the asteroid was the sole cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.
“If you try to explain why the largest impact we know of in the last billion years happened within 100,000 years of these massive lava flows at Deccan … the chances of that occurring at random are minuscule,” said team leader Mark Richards, UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science. “It’s not a very credible coincidence.”
Richards and his colleagues marshal evidence for their theory that the impact reignited the Deccan flood lavas in a paper to be published in The Geological Society of America Bulletin, available online today (April 30) in advance of publication.
While the Deccan lava flows, which started before the impact but erupted for several hundred thousand years after re-ignition, probably spewed immense amounts of carbon dioxide and other noxious, climate-modifying gases into the atmosphere, it’s still unclear if this contributed to the demise of most of life on Earth at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, Richards said.
“This connection between the impact and the Deccan lava flows is a great story and might even be true, but it doesn’t yet take us closer to understanding what actually killed the dinosaurs and the ‘forams,’” he said, referring to tiny sea creatures calledforaminifera, many of which disappeared from the fossil record virtually overnight at the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, called the KT boundary. The disappearance of the landscape-dominating dinosaurs is widely credited with ushering in the age of mammals, eventually including humans.
He stresses that his proposal differs from an earlier hypothesis that the energy of the impact was focused around Earth to a spot directly opposite, or antipodal, to the impact, triggering the eruption of the Deccan Traps. The “antipodal focusing” theory died when the impact crater, called Chicxulub, was found off the Yucatán coast of Mexico, which is about 5,000 kilometers from the antipode of the Deccan traps.
Richards proposed in 1989 that plumes of hot rock, called “plume heads,” rise through Earth’s mantle every 20-30 million years and generate huge lava flows, called flood basalts, like the Deccan Traps. It struck him as more than coincidence that the last four of the six known mass extinctions of life occurred at the same time as one of these massive eruptions.
“Paul Renne’s group at Berkeley showed years ago that the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province is associated with the mass extinction at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary 200 million years ago, and the Siberian Traps are associated with the end Permian extinction 250 million years ago, and now we also know that a big volcanic eruption in China called the Emeishan Traps is associated with the end-Guadalupian extinction 260 million years ago,” Richards said. “Then you have the Deccan eruptions – including the largest mapped lava flows on Earth – occurring 66 million years ago coincident with the KT mass extinction. So what really happened at the KT boundary?”
Richards teamed up with experts in many areas to try to discover faults with his radical idea that the impact triggered the Deccan eruptions, but instead came up with supporting evidence. Paul Renne, a professor in residence in the UC Berkeley Department of Earth and Planetary Science and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, re-dated the asteroid impact and mass extinction two years ago and found them essentially simultaneous, but also within approximately 100,000 years of the largest Deccan eruptions, referred to as the Wai subgroup flows, which produced about 70 percent of the lavas that now stretch across the Indian subcontinent from Mumbai to Kolkata.
Michael Manga, a professor in the same department, has shown over the past decade that large earthquakes – equivalent to Japan’s 9.0 Tohoku quake in 2011 – can trigger nearby volcanic eruptions. Richards calculates that the asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater might have generated the equivalent of a magnitude 9 or larger earthquake everywhere on Earth, sufficient to ignite the Deccan flood basalts and perhaps eruptions many places around the globe, including at mid-ocean ridges.
“It’s inconceivable that the impact could have melted a whole lot of rock away from the impact site itself, but if you had a system that already had magma and you gave it a little extra kick, it could produce a big eruption,” Manga said.
Similarly, Deccan lava from before the impact is chemically different from that after the impact, indicating a faster rise to the surface after the impact, while the pattern of dikes from which the supercharged lava flowed – “like cracks in a soufflé,” Renne said – are more randomly oriented post-impact.
“There is a profound break in the style of eruptions and the volume and composition of the eruptions,” said Renne. “The whole question is, ‘Is that discontinuity synchronous with the impact?’”
Richards, Renne and graduate student Courtney Sprain, along with Deccan volcanology experts Steven Self and Loÿc Vanderkluysen, visited India in April 2014 to obtain lava samples for dating, and noticed that there are pronounced weathering surfaces, or terraces, marking the onset of the huge Wai subgroup flows. Geological evidence suggests that these terraces may signal a period of quiescence in Deccan volcanism prior to the Chicxulub impact. Apparently never before noticed, these terraces are part of the western Ghats, a mountain chain named after the Hindu word for steps.
Since the team’s paper was accepted for publication, a group from Princeton University published new radioisotopic dates for the Deccan Traps lavas that are consistent with these predictions. Renne and Sprain at UC Berkeley also have preliminary, unpublished dates for the Deccan lavas that could help solidify Richards’ theory, Renne said.“This was an existing massive volcanic system that had been there probably several million years, and the impact gave this thing a shake and it mobilized a huge amount of magma over a short amount of time,” Richards said. “The beauty of this theory is that it is very testable, because it predicts that you should have the impact and the beginning of the extinction, and within 100,000 years or so you should have these massive eruptions coming out, which is about how long it might take for the magma to reach the surface.”
Scientists have found antibiotic resistance genes in the bacterial flora of a South American tribe that never before had been exposed to antibiotic drugs. The findings suggest that bacteria in the human body have had the ability to resist antibiotics since long before such drugs were ever used to treat disease.
The research stems from the 2009 discovery of a tribe of Yanomami Amerindians in a remote mountainous area in southern Venezuela. Largely because the tribe had been isolated from other societies for more than 11,000 years, its members were found to have among the most diverse collections of bacteria recorded in humans. Within that plethora of bacteria, though, the researchers have identified genes wired to resist antibiotics.
The study, published April 17 in Science Advances, reports that the microbial populations on the skin and in the mouths and intestines of the Yanomami tribespeople were much more diverse than those found in people from the United States and Europe. The multicenter research was conducted by scientists at New York University School of Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research and other institutions.
“This was an ideal opportunity to study how the connections between microbes and humans evolve when free of modern society’s influences,” said Gautam Dantas, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University and one of the study’s authors. “Such influences include international travel and exposure to antibiotics.”
Intriguingly, in Dantas’ lab, graduate student Erica Pehrsson searched for and found antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria on the skin and in the mouths and intestines of tribe members long isolated from such outside influences.
“These people had no exposure to modern antibiotics; their only potential intake of antibiotics could be through the accidental ingestion of soil bacteria that make naturally occurring versions of these drugs,” Pehrsson said. “Yet we were able to identify several genes in bacteria from their fecal and oral samples that deactivate natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic drugs.”
Thousands of years before people began using antibiotics to fight infections, soil bacteria began producing natural antibiotics to kill competitors. Similarly, microbes evolved defenses to protect themselves from the antibiotics their bacterial competitors would make, likely by acquiring resistance genes from the producers themselves through a process known as horizontal gene transfer.
In recent years, the abundance of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture has accelerated this process, stimulating the development and spread of genes that help bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics. Consequently, strains of human disease that are much harder to treat have emerged.
“We have already run out of drugs to treat some types of multidrug-resistant infections, many of which can be lethal, raising the bleak prospect of a post-antibiotic era,” Dantas said.
Scientists don’t really know whether the diversity of specific bacteria improves or harms health, Dantas said, but added that the microbiomes of people in industrialized countries are about 40 percent less diverse than what was found in the tribespeople never exposed to antibiotics.
“Our results bolster a growing body of data suggesting a link between, on one hand, decreased bacterial diversity, industrialized diets and modern antibiotics, and on the other, immunological and metabolic diseases — such as obesity, asthma, allergies and diabetes, which have dramatically increased since the 1970s,” said Maria Dominguez-Bello, PhD, associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center and senior author of the study. “We believe there is something occurring in the environment during the past 30 years that has been driving these diseases, and we think the microbiome could be involved.”
Dominguez-Bello said the research suggests a link between modern antibiotics, diets in industrialized parts of the world and a greatly reduced diversity in the human microbiome — the trillions of bacteria that live in and on the body and that are increasingly being recognized as vital to good health.
The vast majority of human microbiome studies have focused on Western populations, so access to people unexposed to antibiotics and processed diets may shed light on how the human microbiome has changed in response to modern culture, and may point to therapies that can address disease-causing imbalances in the microbiome.
In the current study, when the researchers exposed cultured bacterial species from the tribe to 23 different antibiotics, the drugs were able to kill all of the bacteria. However, the scientists suspected that these susceptible bacteria might carry silent antibiotic resistance genes that could be activated upon exposure to antibiotics.
They tested for such activation, and the tests confirmed their suspicions. The bacterial samples contained many antibiotic resistance genes that can fend off many modern antibiotics. These genes may turn on in response to antibiotic exposure.
“However, we know that easily cultured bacteria represent less than 1 percent of the human microbiota, and we wanted to know more about potential resistance in the uncultured majority of microbes,” Dantas said.
So the researchers applied the same method, called functional metagenomics, to identify functional antibiotic resistance genes from Yanomami fecal and oral samples without any prior culturing. From that experiment they were able to identify nearly 30 additional resistance genes. Many of these genes deactivated natural antibiotics, but the scientists also found multiple genes that could resist semi-synthetic and synthetic antibiotics.
“These include, for example, third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins, which are drugs we try to reserve to fight some of the worst infections,” said Dantas. “It was alarming to find genes from the tribespeople that would deactivate these modern, synthetic drugs.”
As for how bacteria could resist drugs that such microbes never before had encountered, the researchers point to the possibility of cross-resistance, when genes that resist natural antibiotics also have the ability to resist related synthetic antibiotics.
“We’ve seen resistance emerge in the clinic to every new class of antibiotics, and this appears to be because resistance mechanisms are a natural feature of most bacteria and are just waiting to be activated or acquired with exposure to antibiotics,” Dantas said.