Letter | Published:

The rise of algae in Cryogenian oceans and the emergence of animals

Nature volume 548, pages 578581 (31 August 2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

The transition from dominant bacterial to eukaryotic marine primary productivity was one of the most profound ecological revolutions in the Earth’s history, reorganizing the distribution of carbon and nutrients in the water column and increasing energy flow to higher trophic levels. But the causes and geological timing of this transition, as well as possible links with rising atmospheric oxygen levels1 and the evolution of animals2, remain obscure. Here we present a molecular fossil record of eukaryotic steroids demonstrating that bacteria were the only notable primary producers in the oceans before the Cryogenian period (720–635 million years ago). Increasing steroid diversity and abundance marks the rapid rise of marine planktonic algae (Archaeplastida) in the narrow time interval between the Sturtian and Marinoan ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations, 659–645 million years ago. We propose that the incumbency of cyanobacteria was broken by a surge of nutrients supplied by the Sturtian deglaciation3. The ‘Rise of Algae’ created food webs with more efficient nutrient and energy transfers4, driving ecosystems towards larger and increasingly complex organisms. This effect is recorded by the concomitant appearance of biomarkers for sponges5 and predatory rhizarians, and the subsequent radiation of eumetazoans in the Ediacaran period2.

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Acknowledgements

Funding support for this work came from Australian Research Council (ARC) grants DP0557499, DP1095247, DP160100607 and DP170100556. We thank the Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA), the Northern Territory Geological Survey (NTGS), and S. Porter and M. Moczydłowska for access to samples. J. M. Hope provided technical assistance, including the maintenance of mass spectrometers at The Australian National University.

Author information

Author notes

    • Yosuke Hoshino

    Present address: School of Biological Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, 310 Ferst Drive NW, Georgia 30322, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Jochen J. Brocks
    • , Amber J. M. Jarrett
    • , Eva Sirantoine
    •  & Tharika Liyanage
  2. Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knoell-Straße 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

    • Christian Hallmann
    •  & Yosuke Hoshino
  3. MARUM—Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Leobener Straße 8, 28359 Bremen, Germany

    • Christian Hallmann

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Contributions

J.J.B. conceived the project and processed and interpreted the data. A.J.M.J. analysed and interpreted all biomarkers from the Amadeus Basin and Chuar Group. E.S. analysed biomarkers from the Western Officer Basin and Visingsö Group. T.L. collated data from the Ediacaran and Phanerozoic, and processed Tonian biomarker data. J.J.B. wrote the paper with contributions from C.H. and Y.H.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jochen J. Brocks.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks N. Planavsky, J. Sepúlveda and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23457

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