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A Multidisciplinary Investigation on the Influence of Archean Seawater Composition and UV radiation levels on the Survival and Evolution of Early Microorganisms Open Access


Other title
Seawater composition
UV radiation
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Mloszewski, Aleksandra M.
Supervisor and department
Konhauser, Kurt (Earth and Atmospheric Science)
Examining committee member and department
Zonneveld, JP (Earth and Atmospheric Science)
Owttrim, George (Biological Sciences)
Konhauser, Kurt (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)
Gingras, Murray (Earth and Atmospheric Science)
Templeton, Alexis (Geological Sciences, University of Boulder Colorado)
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Life evolved in the oceans nearly four billion years ago, but the environmental conditions surrounding its evolution remains poorly understood. While Archean seawater (2.5 to 3.8 Ga) provided ancient microorganisms with the bioactive trace metals needed to sustain their metabolic requirements, it also presented high levels of UV radiation and toxic iron levels that made early marine environments inhospitable to life. Nevertheless, the existence of Archean-aged fossil evidence suggests that early microorganisms overcame these challenges and thrived in ancient shallow marine communities. The answer to how they achieved this lies in the composition of Archean seawater. Using the composition of banded iron formations (BIF) from the recently discovered ≥3.75 Ga Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt and the ≥3.77 Ga Nulliak Supracrustal Association as proxies for Eoarchean seawater composition, we show that the early oceans were rich in Ni and Zn. In methanogens (methane-producing bacteria), Ni is a key metal co-factor in the enzymes responsible for methane production. High Ni abundances in Eoarchean seawater facilitated the proliferation of large communtities of methanogens, which were responsible for much of the methane production in the early atmosphere. In terms of Zn, the relatively late appearance of Zn enzymes in eukaryotes has been previously linked to biolimiting marine Zn abundances in the Archean oceans. Instead, this study shows that Zn only varied within an order of magnitude of modern levels. These new observations decouple the relatively late appearance of eukaryotes from the geochemical evolution of Zn in ancient seawater. Much as the rise of oxygen was important to the proliferation of eukaryotes, this study also demonstrates that high concentrations of iron and silica may have been instrumental to the initial survival of the most ancient planktonic bacteria, as well as to the early colonization of littoral marine environments. High UV radiation levels are detrimental to living organisms by causing lesions on DNA molecules, producing critical errors during the transcription of genetic material. Furthermore, the high iron concentrations present in Archean seawater were toxic to cells, through the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The intracellular accumulation of ROS has significant metabolic consequences, such as damage to genetic material (DNA and RNA), as well as protein deterioration and lipid peroxidation, any of which can lead to cell death. Silica played an important protective role for ancient planktonic bacteria by complexing with the iron in Archean seawater. The effects of this reaction were twofold: it lowered the level of soluble, bioavailable iron to more biologically manageable levels, enabling the survival and evolution of early bacteria under high iron conditions. Soluble iron is known for its efficiency at absorbing UV radiation. Aqueous silica delays the precipitation of ferric oxyhydroxide minerals through the formation of nanometer-sized iron-silica colloids. By keeping iron suspended in the water column in this way, silica maintained the role of iron as an effective UV shield. Thus protected from conditions that would otherwise be detrimental to life, early microorganisms were able to thrive in Archean marine habitats. By applying information from the Archean rock record to geochemical and biological models, this multidisciplinary approach has allowed the elucidation of a number of important interactions between the hydro-, litho- and atmosphere and early life.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
Mloszewska, Aleksandra M., et al. "The composition of Earth's oldest iron formations: the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt (Québec, Canada)." Earth and Planetary Science Letters 317 (2012): 331-342.

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