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Effects of primitive photosynthesis on Earth’s early climate system


The evolution of different forms of photosynthetic life has profoundly altered the activity level of the biosphere, radically reshaping the composition of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere over time. However, the mechanistic impacts of a primitive photosynthetic biosphere on Earth’s early atmospheric chemistry and climate are poorly understood. Here, we use a global redox balance model to explore the biogeochemical and climatological effects of different forms of primitive photosynthesis. We find that a hybrid ecosystem of H2-based and Fe2+-based anoxygenic photoautotrophs—organisms that perform photosynthesis without producing oxygen—gives rise to a strong nonlinear amplification of Earth’s methane (CH4) cycle, and would thus have represented a critical component of Earth’s early climate system before the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis. Using a Monte Carlo approach, we find that a hybrid photosynthetic biosphere widens the range of geochemical conditions that allow for warm climate states well beyond either of these metabolic processes acting in isolation. Our results imply that the Earth’s early climate was governed by a novel and poorly explored set of regulatory feedbacks linking the anoxic biosphere and the coupled H, C and Fe cycles. We suggest that similar processes should be considered when assessing the potential for sustained habitability on Earth-like planets with reducing atmospheres.

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Fig. 1: Schematic diagram of the primitive biosphere considered in this study.
Fig. 2: The biogeochemical response to changes in the outgassing flux of reduced gases.
Fig. 3: Monte Carlo simulations showing the probability density for warm (≥288 K) climate states with a low CH4/CO2 (≤0.2).


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We are grateful to J. Kasting for constructive comments on an early draft of this manuscript and his sharing of the FORTRAN code. This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI grant numbers JP16K05618 and JP25120006. K.O. acknowledges support from the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the NASA Astrobiology Program, administered by Universities Space Research Association under contact with NASA. P.K.H. acknowledges support from TeNO/Tokyo-dome. C.T.R. acknowledges support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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K.O. and E.T. developed the hypothesis. K.O., E.T. and C.T.R. designed the study. K.O. constructed the quantitative framework and performed experiments with the sGRB model. P.K.H. and Y.N. carried out the experiments with the coupled model. K.O., P.K.H., Y.N. and C.T.R. analysed the results. K.O., E.T. and C.T.R. wrote the paper with input from P.K.H. All authors discussed and contributed intellectually to the interpretation of the results.

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Correspondence to Kazumi Ozaki.

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Ozaki, K., Tajika, E., Hong, P.K. et al. Effects of primitive photosynthesis on Earth’s early climate system. Nature Geosci 11, 55–59 (2018).

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