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Evidence for arsenic metabolism and cycling by microorganisms 2.7 billion years ago


The ability of microbes to metabolize arsenic may have emerged more than 3.4 billion years ago1,2. Some of the modern environments in which prominent arsenic metabolism occurs are anoxic3,4, as were the Precambrian oceans. Early oceans may also have had a relatively high abundance of arsenic5. However, it is unclear whether arsenic cycling occurred in ancient environments. Here we assess the chemistry and nature of cell-like globules identified in salt-encrusted portions of 2.72-billion-year-old fossil stromatolites from Western Australia. We use Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence to show that the globules are composed of organic carbon and arsenic (As). We argue that our data are best explained by the occurrence of a complete arsenic cycle at this site, with As(III) oxidation and As(V) reduction by microbes living in permanently anoxic conditions. We therefore suggest that arsenic cycling could have occurred more widely in marine environments in the several hundred million years before the Earth’s atmosphere and shallow oceans were oxygenated.

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Figure 1: Imaging of the 2.72-Gyr-old Tumbiana stromatolite.
Figure 2: Imaging of Tumbiana stromatolite.
Figure 3: Metal distribution patterns in the Tumbiana stromatolite.
Figure 4: As-rich organic globules.


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The authors are grateful to D. Paterson, M. De Jonge (AS), C. Ryan (CSIRO), D. Grolimund, C. Borca (SLS) and F. Segura-Ruiz (ESRF) for their help during SR-XRF experiments. We thank the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Geological Survey of Western Australia for supporting the PDP. This work was supported by a grant from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche project ‘eLIFE2’ to P.P. and the UnivEarths Labex programme at Sorbonne Paris Cité (ANR-10-LABX-0023 and ANR-11-IDEX-0005-02). This is IPGP contribution number 3559.

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M.C.S., A.S., P.P., M.A.v.Z. and K.M. carried out the synchrotron and Raman experiments and treated the data. P.P., M.C.S. and A.S. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Marie Catherine Sforna or Pascal Philippot.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Sforna, M., Philippot, P., Somogyi, A. et al. Evidence for arsenic metabolism and cycling by microorganisms 2.7 billion years ago. Nature Geosci 7, 811–815 (2014).

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