Early oxygenation of the terrestrial environment during the Mesoproterozoic

John Parnell, Adrian J. Boyce, Darren Mark, Stephen Bowden, Sam Spinks

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83 Citations (Scopus)


Geochemical data from ancient sedimentary successions provide evidence for the progressive evolution of Earth's atmosphere and oceans(1-7). Key stages in increasing oxygenation are postulated for the Palaeoproterozoic era (similar to 2.3 billion years ago, Gyr ago) and the late Proterozoic eon (about 0.8 Gyr ago), with the latter implicated in the subsequent metazoan evolutionary expansion(8). In support of this rise in oxygen concentrations, a large database(1-3,9) shows a marked change in the bacterially mediated fractionation of seawater sulphate to sulphide of Delta S-34, 25 parts per thousand before 1 Gyr to >= 50 parts per thousand after 0.64 Gyr. This change in Delta S-34 has been interpreted to represent the evolution from single-step bacterial sulphate reduction to a combination of bacterial sulphate reduction and sulphide oxidation, largely bacterially mediated(3,7,9). This evolution is seen as marking the rise in atmospheric oxygen concentrations and the evolution of non-photosynthetic sulphide-oxidizing bacteria(3,7,10). Here we report Delta S-34 values exceeding 50 parts per thousand from a terrestrial Mesoproterozoic (1.18 Gyr old) succession in Scotland, a time period that is at present poorly characterized. This level of fractionation implies disproportionation in the sulphur cycle, probably involving sulphide-oxidizing bacteria, that is not evident from Delta S-34 data in the marine record(1-3,9). Disproportionation in both red beds and lacustrine black shales at our study site suggests that the Mesoproterozoic terrestrial environment was sufficiently oxygenated to support a biota that was adapted to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but had also penetrated into subsurface sediment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)290-293
Number of pages4
Issue number7321
Early online date10 Nov 2010
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2010


  • microbial sulfate reduction
  • sulfur-isotope
  • atmospheric oxygen
  • Northwest Scotland
  • Proterozoic Ocean
  • evolution
  • age
  • fractionation
  • combustion
  • biosphere


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