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Evidence of giant sulphur bacteria in Neoproterozoic phosphorites

Abstract

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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Bailey, J., Joye, S., Kalanetra, K. et al. Evidence of giant sulphur bacteria in Neoproterozoic phosphorites. Nature 445, 198–201 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05457

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