Oxygenation of the Mesoproterozoic ocean and the evolution of complex eukaryotes


The Mesoproterozoic era (1,600–1,000 million years ago (Ma)) has long been considered a period of relative environmental stasis, with persistently low levels of atmospheric oxygen. There remains much uncertainty, however, over the evolution of ocean chemistry during this period, which may have been of profound significance for the early evolution of eukaryotic life. Here we present rare earth element, iron-speciation and inorganic carbon isotope data to investigate the redox evolution of the 1,600–1,550 Ma Yanliao Basin, North China Craton. These data confirm that the ocean at the start of the Mesoproterozoic was dominantly anoxic and ferruginous. Significantly, however, we find evidence for a progressive oxygenation event starting at ~1,570 Ma, immediately prior to the occurrence of complex multicellular eukaryotes in shelf areas of the Yanliao Basin. Our study thus demonstrates that oxygenation of the Mesoproterozoic environment was far more dynamic and intense than previously envisaged, and establishes an important link between rising oxygen and the emerging record of diverse, multicellular eukaryotic life in the early Mesoproterozoic.

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Fig. 1: Summary of sedimentary facies (SF) and geochemical signals for carbonates from the Gaoyuzhuang Formation, Jixian Section.
Fig. 2: Compilation of inorganic carbon isotope (δ13Ccarb) data for the Gaoyuzhuang Formation across the Yanliao Basin.
Fig. 3: Depiction of the redox evolution in the early Mesoproterozoic Yanliao Sea.


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This work was supported by NSFC Grant 41430104 and CAGS Research Fund YYWF201603 to X.K.Z., a China Scholarship Council award to K.Z. and a China Geological Survey Grant DD20160120-04 to B. Yan. S.W.P. acknowledges support from a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. We thank L. Gao and P. Liu for field guidance, and F. Shi, C. Tang, X. Peng, C. Pan, N. Zhao, C. Bao, Z. Zhou, F. Zhang and Y. Guo for field-work assistance. We acknowledge F. Xu and M. Lv for assistance in the elemental analysis, Y. Xiong for help with the Fe-speciation experiments, Y. Shen, K. Chen and W. Huang for carbon isotope analyses and F. Bowyer for assistance with cathodoluminescence. We also express our thanks to J. Li, D. Li, Y. He, J. Ma, X. Zou and K. Du for logistical support.

Author information

X.K.Z. designed the project. X.K.Z., K.Z., Y.S. and Z.F.G. did the fieldwork and collected samples. K.Z. carried out the elemental and Fe-speciation analyses. R.A.W. provided expertise in the evaluation of carbonate diagenesis. X.K.Z., K.Z. and S.W.P. interpreted the data, and K.Z., S.W.P. and X.K.Z. wrote the paper, with additional input from all the co-authors.

Correspondence to Xiangkun Zhu.

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Zhang, K., Zhu, X., Wood, R.A. et al. Oxygenation of the Mesoproterozoic ocean and the evolution of complex eukaryotes. Nature Geosci 11, 345–350 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0111-y

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