The redox state of the oceans strongly influences the concentration of dissolved trace metals in sea water. Changes in the redox state of the oceans are thought to have limited the availability of some trace metals in the past, particularly during the Proterozoic eon, 2,500 to 542 million years ago1,2,3,4. Of these trace metals, zinc (Zn) is of particular importance to eukaryotic organisms, because it is essential for a wide range of basic cellular functions. It has been suggested5 that during the Proterozoic, marine environments were broadly euxinic—that is, anoxic and sulphidic—which would have resulted in low Zn availability. Low Zn bioavailability could therefore be responsible for an observed delay in eukaryote diversification2. Here we present a compilation of Zn abundance data from black shales deposited under euxinic conditions from the Precambrian time to the present. We show that these values track first-order trends in seawater Zn availability. Contrary to previous estimates6, we find that Zn concentrations during the Proterozoic were similar to modern concentrations, supporting recent studies7,8 that call for limited euxinia at this time. Instead, we propose that predominantly anoxic and iron-rich deep oceans, combined with large hydrothermal fluxes of Zn, maintained high levels of dissolved Zn throughout the oceans. We thus suggest that the protracted diversification of eukaryotic Zn-binding proteins was not a result of Znbiolimitation.

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C.S. acknowledges the National Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. N.J.P. acknowledges a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. C.L.D. was supported by a NASA Astrobiology Institute Director’s Discretionary Fund. B.K. and B.C.G. acknowledge the National Science Foundation and the Agouron Institute. G.L.A., A.D.A. and T.W.L. acknowledge the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation. A.B., B.A.W., L.J.R. and K.O.K. acknowledge the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. R. Creaser is thanked for Black River dolomite samples. The National Environment Research Council is acknowledged by S.W.P. for financial support through the Life Science and the Planet Scheme and K.F.H. for a PhD DTA.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, USA

    • Clint Scott
    • , Noah J. Planavsky
    •  & Timothy W. Lyons
  2. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2A7, Canada

    • Clint Scott
    •  & Boswell A. Wing
  3. Microbial and Environmental Genomics Group, J. Craig Venter Institute, La Jolla, California 92121, USA

    • Chris L. Dupont
  4. School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, PO Box 871404, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA

    • Brian Kendall
    •  & Ariel D. Anbar
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada

    • Brian Kendall
  6. Department of Geosciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA

    • Benjamin C. Gill
  7. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E3, Canada

    • Leslie J. Robbins
    •  & Kurt O. Konhauser
  8. School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Kathryn F. Husband
    •  & Simon W. Poulton
  9. Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, 28359 Bremen, Germany

    • Gail L. Arnold
  10. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada

    • Andrey Bekker
  11. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA

    • Ariel D. Anbar


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C.S. and N.P.J. designed the study. All authors were involved in the interpretations, and writing of this study. C.S., N.P.J., G.L.A., B.K. and K.F.H. analysed samples. B.C.G. compiled Phanerozoic data.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Clint Scott.

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