Phosphate oxygen isotopic evidence for a temperate and biologically active Archaean ocean

Abstract

Oxygen and silicon isotope compositions of cherts1,2,3 and studies of protein evolution4 have been interpreted to reflect ocean temperatures of 55–85 °C during the early Palaeoarchaean era (3.5 billion years ago). A recent study combining oxygen and hydrogen isotope compositions of cherts, however, makes a case for Archaean ocean temperatures being no greater than 40 °C (ref. 5). Ocean temperature can also be assessed using the oxygen isotope composition of phosphate. Recent studies show that 18O:16O ratios of dissolved inorganic phosphate (δ18OP) reflect ambient seawater temperature as well as biological processing that dominates marine phosphorus cycling at low temperature6,7. All forms of life require and concentrate phosphorus, and as a result of biological processing, modern marine phosphates have δ18OP values typically between 19–26‰ (VSMOW)7,8, highly evolved from presumed source values of 6–8‰ that are characteristic of apatite in igneous rocks9,10 and meteorites11. Here we report oxygen isotope compositions of phosphates in sediments from the 3.2–3.5-billion-year-old Barberton Greenstone Belt in South Africa. We find that δ18OP values range from 9.3‰ to 19.9‰ and include the highest values reported for Archaean rocks. The temperatures calculated from our highest δ18OP values and assuming equilibrium with sea water with δ18O = 0‰ (ref. 12) range from 26 °C to 35 °C. The higher δ18OP values are similar to those of modern marine phosphate and suggest a well-developed phosphorus cycle and evolved biologic activity on the Archaean Earth.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Comparison of δ18OP values from Barberton sediments with modern marine phosphates and igneous phosphates.
Figure 2: Back-scattered electron images of phosphate phases in Barberton sediments.
Figure 3: Comparison of δ 18 O values of Barberton phosphates and cherts.
Figure 4: Sketch of possible phosphorus cycling and phosphate–iron oxide interactions in a thermally stratified Archaean ocean.

References

  1. 1

    Knauth, L. P. & Lowe, D. R. High Archean climatic temperature inferred from oxygen isotope geochemistry of cherts in the 3.5 Ga Swaziland Supergroup, South Africa. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 115, 566–580 (2003)

  2. 2

    Karhu, J. & Epstein, S. The implication of the oxygen isotope records in coexisting cherts and phosphates. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 50, 1745–1756 (1986)

  3. 3

    Robert, F. & Chaussidon, M. A palaeotemperature curve for the Precambrian oceans based on silicon isotopes in cherts. Nature 443, 969–972 (2006)

  4. 4

    Gaucher, E. A., Govindarajan, S. & Ganesh, O. K. Paleotemperature trend for Precambrian life inferred from resurrected proteins. Nature 451, 704–707 (2008)

  5. 5

    Hren, M. T., Tice, M. M. & Chamberlain, C. P. Oxygen and hydrogen isotope evidence for a temperate climate 3.42 billion years ago. Nature 462, 205–208 (2009)

  6. 6

    Blake, R. E., O’Neil, J. R. & Surkov, A. V. Biogeochemical cycling of phosphorus: insights from oxygen isotope effects of phosphoenzymes. Am. J. Sci. 305, 596–620 (2005)

  7. 7

    Colman, A. S., Blake, R. E., Karl, D. M., Fogel, M. L. & Turekian, K. K. Marine phosphate oxygen isotopes and organic matter remineralization in the oceans. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 13023–13028 (2005)

  8. 8

    Shemesh, A., Kolodny, Y. & Luz, B. Oxygen isotope variations in phosphate of biogenic apatites. II. Phosphorite rocks. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 64, 405–416 (1983)

  9. 9

    Taylor, H. P. & Epstein, S. Relationship between O18/O16 ratios in coexisting minerals of igneous and metamorphic rocks. Part I. Principles and experimental results. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 73, 461–480 (1962)

  10. 10

    Markel, D., Kolodny, Y., Luz, B. & Nishri, A. Phosphorus cycling and phosphorus sources in Lake Kinneret: tracing by oxygen isotopes in phosphate. Isr. J. Earth Sci. 43, 165–178 (1994)

  11. 11

    Greenwood, J. P., Blake, R. E. & Coath, C. D. Ion microprobe measurements of 18O/16O ratios of phosphate minerals in the Martian meteorites ALH84001 and Los Angeles. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 67, 2289–2298 (2003)

  12. 12

    Muehlenbachs, K. & Clayton, R. N. Oxygen isotope composition of the oceanic crust and its bearing on seawater. J. Geophys. Res. 81, 4365–4369 (1976)

  13. 13

    Walsh, M. M. & Lowe, D. R. Filamentous microfossils from the 3,500-Myr-old Onverwacht Group, Barberton Mountain Land, South Africa. Nature 314, 530–532 (1985)

  14. 14

    Byerly, G. R., Lowe, D. R. & Walsh, M. M. Stromatolites from the 3,300–3,500-Myr Swaziland Supergroup, Barberton Mountain Land, South Africa. Nature 319, 489–491 (1986)

  15. 15

    Furnes, H., Banerjee, N. R., Muehlenbachs, K., Staudigel, H. & de Wit, M. Early life recorded in Archean pillow lavas. Science 304, 578–581 (2004)

  16. 16

    Lowe, D. R. & Byerly, G. R. in Earth's Oldest Rocks (eds van Kranendonk, M. J., Smithies, R. H. & Bennet, V. C.) 481–526 (Elsevier, Developments in Precambrian Geology 15, 2007)

  17. 17

    Tice, M. M., Bostick, B. C. & Lowe, D. R. Thermal history of the 3.5–3.2 Ga Onverwacht and Fig Tree Groups, Barberton greenstone belt, South Africa, inferred by Raman microspectroscopy of carbonaceous material. Geology 32, 37–40 (2004)

  18. 18

    Lowe, D. R. in Geologic Evolution of the Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa (eds Lowe, D. R. & Byerly, G. R.) Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 329, 83–114 (1999)

  19. 19

    Hofmann, A. & Bolhar, R. Carbonaceous cherts in the Barberton Greenstone Belt and their significance for the study of early life in the Archean record. Astrobiology 7, 355–388 (2007)

  20. 20

    Hofmann, A. & Harris, C. Silica alteration zones in the Barberton greenstone belt: a window into subseafloor processes 3.5–3.3 Ga ago. Chem. Geol. 257, 221–239 (2008)

  21. 21

    van den Boorn, S. H. J. M., van Bergen, M. J., Nijman, W. & Vroon, P. Z. Dual role of seawater and hydrothermal fluids in Early Archean chert formation: evidence from silicon isotopes. Geology 35, 939–942 (2007)

  22. 22

    Vennemann, T. W., Fricke, H. C., Blake, R. E., O’Neil, J. R. & Colman, A. Oxygen isotope analysis of phosphates: a comparison of techniques for analysis of Ag3PO4 . Chem. Geol. 185, 321–336 (2002)

  23. 23

    Berner, R. A. Phosphate removal from sea water by adsorption on volcanogenic ferric oxides. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 18, 77–86 (1973)

  24. 24

    Smith, H. S., O'Neil, J. R. & Erlank, A. J. in Archean Geochemistry (eds Kroner, A., Hanson, G. N. & Goodwin, A. M.) 115–137 (Springer, 1984)

  25. 25

    Jaffrés, J. B. D., Shields, G. A. & Wallmann, K. The oxygen isotope evolution of seawater: a critical review of a long-standing controversy and an improved geological water cycle model for the past 3.4 billion years. Earth Sci. Rev. 83, 83–122 (2007)

  26. 26

    Longinelli, A. & Nuti, S. Revised phosphate-water isotopic temperature scale. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 19, 373–376 (1973)

  27. 27

    Kolodny, Y., Luz, B. & Navon, O. Oxygen isotope variations in phosphate of biogenic apatites. I. Fish bone apatite—rechecking the rules of the game. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 64, 398–404 (1983)

  28. 28

    Widdel, F. et al. Ferrous iron oxidation by anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria. Nature 362, 834–836 (1993)

  29. 29

    Kappler, A., Pasquero, C., Konhauser, K. O. & Newman, D. K. Deposition of banded iron formations by anoxygenic phototrophic Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria. Geology 33, 865–868 (2005)

  30. 30

    Bjerrum, C. J. & Canfield, D. E. Ocean productivity before about 1.9 Gyr ago limited by phosphorus adsorption onto iron oxides. Nature 417, 159–162 (2002)

  31. 31

    Ruttenberg, K. C. Development of a sequential extraction method for different forms of phosphorus in marine sediments. Limnol. Oceanogr. 37, 1460–1482 (1992)

  32. 32

    Poulton, S. W. & Canfield, D. E. Development of a sequential extraction procedure for iron: implications for iron partitioning in continentally derived particulates. Chem. Geol. 214, 209–221 (2005)

  33. 33

    Murphy, J. & Riley, J. P. A modified single solution method for the determination of phosphate in natural waters. Anal. Chim. Acta 27, 31–36 (1962)

  34. 34

    Karl, D. M. & Tien, G. MAGIC: A sensitive and precise method for measuring dissolved phosphorus in aquatic environments. Limnol. Oceanogr. 37, 105–116 (1992)

  35. 35

    Tudge, A. P. A method of analysis of oxygen isotopes in orthophosphate—its use in the measurement of paleotemperatures. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 18, 81–93 (1960)

  36. 36

    Liang, Y. Oxygen Isotope Studies of Biogeochemical Cycling of Phosphorus PhD thesis, Yale Univ. (2005)

  37. 37

    Colman, S. A. The Oxygen Isotope Composition of Dissolved Inorganic Phosphate and the Marine Phosphorus Cycle PhD thesis, Yale Univ. (2002)

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank M. Kastner and J. R. O’Neil for editorial suggestions and G. Olack and K. Fornash for technical assistance with isotopic analyses.

Author Contributions R.B. and A.L. conceived the study; A.L. performed field work, sample collection, petrographic and chemical analyses; S.J.C. and R.B. developed methods of sequential PO4 extraction, purification, micro-precipitation and PO4 oxygen isotope analysis. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and the writing and editing of the manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Ruth E. Blake.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables S1-S3, Supplementary Sample Descriptions 2.1-2.3, Supplementary Figures S1-S2, a Supplementary Discussion about the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater and Supplementary References. (PDF 1305 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Blake, R., Chang, S. & Lepland, A. Phosphate oxygen isotopic evidence for a temperate and biologically active Archaean ocean. Nature 464, 1029–1032 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08952

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

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.