Plate tectonics, surface mineralogy, and the early evolution of life

J. Parnell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


In addition to the accepted roles of plate tectonics in regulating planetary habitability through the composition of the atmosphere and temperature, and creating continents to enhance land-based evolution and biodiversity, it has a hitherto unexplored role in influencing surface mineralogy with possible implications for early evolution. Plate tectonics creates continents through the accretion of buoyant granitic crust. Erosion of the granites yields specific minerals including quartz, radioactive (uranium-, thorium-bearing) phases and phosphates, which could play a role in early evolution. Radioactive grains could help to concentrate carbon and increase its complexity through irradiation-induced polymerization at the prebiotic stage, and possibly influence mutation rates once life was established. Weathering of phosphate minerals was an important source of phosphorus for the biochemistry that is essential to life. Quartz-rich sands provide a translucent refuge for early photosynthesizers below the harmful effects of ultra-violet irradiation at the surface. Uranium is also important to the development of nuclear power in an advanced civilization. The mineralogy that engenders these processes is distinct from that to be expected on a planet without plate tectonics, where volcanogenic sediments would predominate, and further emphasizes the importance of plate tectonics to the evolution of life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-137
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2004


  • early Earth
  • evolution
  • geochemistry
  • phosphorus
  • plate tectonics
  • quartz
  • radioactivity


Dive into the research topics of 'Plate tectonics, surface mineralogy, and the early evolution of life'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this