The late Precambrian greening of the Earth


Many aspects of the carbon cycle can be assessed from temporal changes in the 13C/12C ratio of oceanic bicarbonate. 13C/12C can temporarily rise when large amounts of 13C-depleted photosynthetic organic matter are buried at enhanced rates1, and can decrease if phytomass is rapidly oxidized2 or if low 13C is rapidly released from methane clathrates3. Assuming that variations of the marine 13C/12C ratio are directly recorded in carbonate rocks, thousands of carbon isotope analyses of late Precambrian examples have been published to correlate these otherwise undatable strata and to document perturbations to the carbon cycle just before the great expansion of metazoan life. Low 13C/12C in some Neoproterozoic carbonates is considered evidence of carbon cycle perturbations unique to the Precambrian. These include complete oxidation of all organic matter in the ocean2 and complete productivity collapse such that low-13C/12C hydrothermal CO2 becomes the main input of carbon4. Here we compile all published oxygen and carbon isotope data for Neoproterozoic marine carbonates, and consider them in terms of processes known to alter the isotopic composition during transformation of the initial precipitate into limestone/dolostone. We show that the combined oxygen and carbon isotope systematics are identical to those of well-understood Phanerozoic examples that lithified in coastal pore fluids, receiving a large groundwater influx of photosynthetic carbon from terrestrial phytomass. Rather than being perturbations to the carbon cycle, widely reported decreases in 13C/12C in Neoproterozoic carbonates are more easily interpreted in the same way as is done for Phanerozoic examples. This influx of terrestrial carbon is not apparent in carbonates older than 850 Myr, so we infer an explosion of photosynthesizing communities on late Precambrian land surfaces. As a result, biotically enhanced weathering generated carbon-bearing soils on a large scale and their detrital sedimentation sequestered carbon5. This facilitated a rise in O2 necessary for the expansion of multicellular life.

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Figure 1: Stable isotopes in Phanerozoic carbonates.
Figure 2: Neoproterozoic carbonates.
Figure 3: All Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic carbonates.
Figure 4: Pre-850 Myr ago marine calcite and dolomite.


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We thank K. McFadden for help compiling the data. L.P.K. was funded by NASA Exobiology grants NG04GJ47G and NNX08AT72G. M.J.K. was funded by NASA Exobiology NNG04GJ42G and NSF EAR 0345207.

Author Contributions Both authors shared equally in interpretations and implications of the data. L.P.K. compiled the data, wrote the initial draft, and managed revisions.

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Correspondence to L. Paul Knauth.

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Knauth, L., Kennedy, M. The late Precambrian greening of the Earth. Nature 460, 728–732 (2009).

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