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Primary haematite formation in an oxygenated sea 3.46 billion years ago


The timing of the origin of photosynthesis on the early Earth is greatly debated. It is generally agreed, on the basis of the presence of biological molecules found in shales from the Hamersley Basin, Australia, that oxygenic photosynthesis had evolved 2.7 billion years (Gyr) ago. However, whether photosynthesis occurred before this time remains controversial. Here we report primary haematite crystals and associated minerals within the marine sedimentary rocks preserved in a jasper formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia, which we interpret as evidence for the formation of these rocks in an oxygenated water body 3.46 Gyr ago. We suggest that these haematite crystals formed at temperatures greater than 60 C from locally discharged hydrothermal fluids rich in ferrous iron. The crystals precipitated when the fluids rapidly mixed with overlying oxygenated sea water, at depths greater than 200 m. As our findings imply the existence of noticeable quantities of molecular oxygen, we propose that organisms capable of oxygenic photosynthesis evolved more than 700 million years earlier than previously recognized, resulting in the oxygenation of at least some intermediate and deep ocean regions.

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Figure 1: Drilling of the MBC at ABDP Site 1, 4 km south of Marble Bar, Western Australia.
Figure 2: Vertical zonation in the MBC at ABDP Site 1.
Figure 3: A photomicrograph (under reflected and transmitted light) of a thin section of the Marble Bar jasper.
Figure 4: TEM images of haematite crystals.
Figure 5: Scanning electron microscope images of haematite, magnetite and siderite crystals in the Marble Bar jasper samples from Zone IV.
Figure 6: Haematite inclusions in siderite crystals.


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This study was carried out under The Archaean Biosphere Drilling Project (ABDP; see Supplementary Information), which was funded largely by the NASA Astrobiology Institute to H.O., the Geological Survey of Western Australia to A.H.H., the University of Western Australia to M. Barley and the Japanese Ministry of Science, Education, Sports and Culture to M. Nedachi. A.H.H. publishes with permission of the Executive Director of the Geological Survey of Western Australia. We are grateful to B. Runnegar, R. Grymes and A. Marshall for their support of the ABDP; Y. Suganuma and D. Walizer for laboratory assistance; M. Nedachi, M. Barley, E. Altinok, K. E. Yamaguchi, Y. Kato and K. Nakamura for discussions; and P. Heaney, C. de Ronde, A. W. Rose and H. L. Barnes for valuable comments on an earlier manuscript.

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Project planning was carried out by H.O., A.H.H. and M.H., sample analyses by M.H., D.C.B., Y.W., T.O. and S.U. and data analysis and writing mostly by H.O., M.H. and A.H.H. with input from D.C.B, Y.W., T.O. and S.U.

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Correspondence to Hiroshi Ohmoto.

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Hoashi, M., Bevacqua, D., Otake, T. et al. Primary haematite formation in an oxygenated sea 3.46 billion years ago. Nature Geosci 2, 301–306 (2009).

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