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Photosynthetic microbial mats in the 3,416-Myr-old ocean

Abstract

Recent re-evaluations of the geological record of the earliest life on Earth have led to the suggestion that some of the oldest putative microfossils1 and carbonaceous matter were formed through abiotic hydrothermal processes2,3. Similarly, many early Archaean (more than 3,400-Myr-old) cherts have been reinterpreted as hydrothermal deposits rather than products of normal marine sedimentary processes2,4,5. Here we present the results of a field, petrographic and geochemical study testing these hypotheses for the 3,416-Myr-old Buck Reef Chert, South Africa. From sedimentary structures and distributions of sand and mud, we infer that deposition occurred in normal open shallow to deep marine environments. The siderite enrichment that we observe in deep-water sediments is consistent with a stratified early ocean6,7. We show that most carbonaceous matter was formed by photosynthetic mats within the euphotic zone and distributed as detrital matter by waves and currents to surrounding environments. We find no evidence that hydrothermal processes had any direct role in the deposition of either the carbonaceous matter or the enclosing sediments. Instead, we conclude that photosynthetic organisms had evolved and were living in a stratified ocean supersaturated in dissolved silica8,9 3,416 Myr ago.

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Figure 1: Measured section through the BRC with whole-rock elemental abundances.
Figure 2: Chert types and structures of the BRC.
Figure 3: Grains and textures of the BRC.
Figure 4: Laminated carbonaceous matter and filaments in the lower part of the platform facies.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by NASA Exobiology Program grants to D.L. M.T. was also supported by a William R. and Sara Hart Kimball Stanford Graduate Fellowship and by a Harvey Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Michael M. Tice.

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Tice, M., Lowe, D. Photosynthetic microbial mats in the 3,416-Myr-old ocean. Nature 431, 549–552 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02888

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