Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Evidence of giant sulphur bacteria in Neoproterozoic phosphorites


In situ phosphatization1 and reductive cell division2 have recently been discovered within the vacuolate sulphur-oxidizing bacteria. Here we show that certain Neoproterozoic Doushantuo Formation (about 600 million years bp) microfossils, including structures previously interpreted as the oldest known metazoan eggs and embryos3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, can be interpreted as giant vacuolate sulphur bacteria. Sulphur bacteria of the genus Thiomargarita have sizes and morphologies similar to those of many Doushantuo microfossils, including symmetrical cell clusters that result from multiple stages of reductive division in three planes. We also propose that Doushantuo phosphorite precipitation was mediated by these bacteria, as shown in modern Thiomargarita-associated phosphogenic sites, thus providing the taphonomic conditions that preserved other fossils known from the Doushantuo Formation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Comparisons of light micrograph images of translucent unmineralized modern Thiomargarita cells (left column) with scanning electron microscopy images of opaque mineralized Doushantuo microfossils (right column).
Figure 2: Phase contrast images of Thiomargarita cellular structure.
Figure 3: Filaments associated with Thiomargarita cells and Doushantuo microfossils.


  1. Schulz, H. N. & Schulz, H. D. Large sulfur bacteria and the formation of phosphorite. Science 307, 416–418 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Kalanetra, K. M., Joye, S. B., Sunseri, N. R. & Nelson, D. C. Novel vacuolate sulfur bacteria from the Gulf of Mexico reproduce by reductive division in three dimensions. Environ. Microbiol. 7, 1451–1460 (2005)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Xiao, S., Yuan, X. & Knoll, A. H. Eumetazoan fossils in terminal Proterozoic phosphorites?. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 97, 13684–13689 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Li, C., Chen, J. & Hua, T. E. Precambrian sponges with cellular structures. Science 279, 879–882 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Chen, J.-Y. The Dawn of Animal World (Jiangsu Science & Technology, Nanjing, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Chen, J.-Y. et al. Phosphatized polar lobe-forming embryos from the Precambrian of southwest China. Science 312, 1644–1646 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Chen, J.-Y. et al. Precambrian animal life: probable developmental and adult cnidarian forms from southwest China. Dev. Biol. 248, 182–196 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Chen, J.-Y. et al. Precambrian animal diversity: New evidence from high resolution phosphatized embryos. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 97, 4457–4462 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Xiao, S. & Knoll, A. H. Phosphatized animal embryos from the Neoproterozoic Doushantuo Formation at Weng’an, Guizhou, South China. J. Paleontol. 74, 767–788 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Xiao, S., Zhang, Y. & Knoll, A. H. Three-dimensional preservation of algae and animal embryos in a Neoproterozoic phosphorite. Nature 391, 553–558 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Awramik, S. M. et al. Prokaryotic and eukaryotic microfossils from a Proterozoic/Phanerozoic transition in China. Nature 315, 655–658 (1985)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Zhou, C., Brasier, M. D. & Xue, Y. Three-dimensional phosphatic preservation of giant acritarchs from the Terminal Proterozoic Doushantuo Formation in Ghizhou and Hubei Provinces, South China. Palaeontology 44, 1157–1178 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Zhang, Y., Yin, L., Xiao, S. & Knoll, A. H. Permineralized fossils from the Terminal Proterozoic Doushantuo Formation, South China. Paleontol. Soc. Mem. 50, 1–52 (1998)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Chen, J.-Y. et al. Small bilaterian fossils from 40 to 55 million years before the Cambrian. Science 305, 218–222 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Barfod, G. H. et al. New Lu-Hf and Pb-Pb age constraints on the earliest animal fossils. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 201, 203–212 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Xue, Y., Tang, T., Yu, C. & Zhou, C. Large spheroidal chlorophyta fossils from the Doushantuo Formation phosphoric sequence (late Sinian), central Guizhou, South China. Acta Palaeontol. Sin. 34, 688–706 (1995)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Xiao, S. Mitotic topologies and mechanics of Neoproterozoic algae and animal embryos. Paleobiology 28, 244–250 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hagadorn, J. W. et al. Cellular and subcellular structure of Neoproterozoic animal embryos. Science 314, 291–294 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Martin, D., Briggs, D. E. G. & Parkes, R. J. Decay and mineralization of invertebrate eggs. Palaios 20, 562–572 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Raff, E. et al. Experimental taphonomy shows the feasibility of fossil embryos. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 5846–5851 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Xiao, S. & Knoll, A. H. Fossil preservation in the Neoproterozoic Doushantuo phosphorite Lagerstätte, South China. Lethaia 32, 219–240 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schulz, H. N. in The Prokaryotes: An Evolving Electronic Resource for the Microbiological Community (eds Dworkin, M. et al. ) 〈〉 (2006)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Jørgensen, B. B. & Nelson, D. C. in Sulfur Biogeochemistry—Past and Present (eds Amend, J. P., Edwards, K. J. & Lyons, T.W.) 63–81 (Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 379, Boulder, Colorado, 2004)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  24. Schulz, H. N. et al. Dense populations of a giant sulfur bacterium in Namibian shelf sediments. Science 284, 493–495 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Dornbos, S. Q. et al. Precambrian animal life: Taphonomy of phosphatized metazoan embryos from southwest China. Lethaia 38, 101–109 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Xue, Y. S., Tang, T. F. & Yu, C. L. ‘Animal embryos,’ a misinterpretation of Neoproterozoic microfossils. Acta Micropaleontol. Sin. 16, 1–4 (1999)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Xiao, S. & Knoll, A. H. Embryos or algae? A reply. Acta Micropaleontol. Sin. 16, 313–323 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Costello, D. P. & Henley, C. Methods for Obtaining and Handling Marine Eggs and Embryos (Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1971)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  29. Goldberg, T., Poulten, S. W. & Strauss, H. Sulphur and oxygen isotope signatures of late Neoproterozoic to early Cambrian sulphate, Yangtze Platform, China: Diagenetic constraints and seawater evolution. Precambr. Res. 137, 223–241 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Bengston, S. & Budd, G. Comment on ‘Small bilaterian fossils from 40 to 55 million years before the Cambrian’. Science 306, 1291a (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank D. Bottjer, D. Caron, A. Jones, R. Schaffner, S. Douglas, A. Thompson and D. Nelson for discussions, advice and/or assistance. This project was funded by the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Earth Sciences, and Life in Extreme Environments programs, as well as the NASA Exobiology Program. Submersible operations in the Gulf of Mexico were supported by the US Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Undersea Research Program.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jake V. Bailey.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes and Supplementary Figures 1-8 with legends. (PDF 1363 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bailey, J., Joye, S., Kalanetra, K. et al. Evidence of giant sulphur bacteria in Neoproterozoic phosphorites. Nature 445, 198–201 (2007).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing