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2-Methylhopanoids as biomarkers for cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthesis


Oxygenic photosynthesis is widely accepted as the most important bioenergetic process happening in Earth's surface environment1. It is thought to have evolved within the cyanobacterial lineage, but it has been difficult to determine when it began. Evidence based on the occurrence and appearance of stromatolites2 and microfossils3 indicates that phototrophy occurred as long ago as 3,465 Myr although no definite physiological inferences can be made from these objects. Carbon isotopes and other geological phenomena4,5 provide clues but are also equivocal. Biomarkers are potentially useful because the three domains of extant life—Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya—have signature membrane lipids with recalcitrant carbon skeletons. These lipids turn into hydrocarbons in sediments and can be found wherever the recordis sufficiently well preserved. Here we show that 2-methylbacteriohopanepolyols occur in a high proportion of cultured cyanobacteria and cyanobacterial mats. Their 2-methylhopane hydrocarbon derivatives are abundant in organic-rich sediments as old as 2,500 Myr. These biomarkers may help constrain the age of the oldest cyanobacteria and the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis. They could also be used to quantify the ecological importance of cyanobacteria through geological time.

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Figure 1: Structures of bacteriohopanepolyols (1, 2) typical of those found in cyanobacteria and their geohopane analogues recognized in sediments and petroleum (3, 4).


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We thank D. Taylor for providing Hamersley basin samples and associated geological and maturity data. M. Rohmer, J. Hayes, K. Hinrichs, A. Knoll and M. Walter provided critical and constructive comments on drafts of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Roger E. Summons.

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Exobiology Biology Branch, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, 94035, California, USA

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Summons, R., Jahnke, L., Hope, J. et al. 2-Methylhopanoids as biomarkers for cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthesis. Nature 400, 554–557 (1999).

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