Category Archives: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution

A role for iron in the origin of life

Experiments aimed at suggesting how RNA and DNA – prerequisites for life, reproduction and evolution – might have formed from a ‘primordial soup’ have made slow progress. Another approach to the origin of life is investigation of the most basic chemical reactions that it engages in. Whatever the life form, prokaryote or eukaryote, its core processes involve reducing carbon dioxide, or other simple carbon-bearing compounds, and water to synthesise organic molecules that make up cell matter. Organisms also engage in metabolising biological compounds to generate energy. At their root, these two processes mirror each other; a creative network of reactions and another that breaks compounds down, known as the Krebs- and the reverse-Krebs cycles. In living organisms both are facilitated by other organic compounds that, of course, are themselves produced by cells. How such networks arose under inorganic conditions remains unknown, but three biochemists at the University of Strasbourg in France (Muchowska, K.B. et al. 2019. Synthesis and breakdown of universal metabolic precursors promoted by iron. Nature, v. 569, p. 104-107;  DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1151-1) have designed an inorganic experiment. They aimed to investigate how two simple organic compounds, which conceivably could have formed in a lifeless early environment, might have been encouraged to kick-start basic living processes. These are glyoxylate (HCOCO2) and pyruvate (CH3COCO2).

The most difficult chemical step in building complex organic compounds is inducing carbon atoms to bond together through C-C bonds; a process that thermodynamics tends to thwart but is accomplished in living cells by adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). Previous workers focussed on interactions between reactive compounds, such as cyanide and formaldehyde, as candidates for the precursors of life, but such chemistry is totally different from what actually goes on in organisms. Joseph Moran, one of the co-authors of the paper, and his research group recently settled on five fundamental linkages of C, H and O as ‘universal hubs’ at the core of the Krebs cycle and its reverse. Kamila Muchowska and co-workers found that glyoxylate and pyruvate introduced into a simulated hydrothermal fluid that contains ions of ferrous iron (reduced Fe2+) were able to combine in producing all five ‘universal hubs. Ferrous iron clearly acted as a catalyst, through being a powerful reducing agent or electron donor, to get around the stringencies of classic thermodynamics. Moran’s team had previously shown that pyruvate itself can form inorganically from CO2 in water laced with iron, cobalt and nickel ions. Formation of glyoxylate in such a manner has yet to be demonstrated. Nevertheless, the two together in a watery soup of transition metal ions seem destined to produce an abundance of exactly the compounds at the root of living processes. In fact the experiment showed that all but two of the eleven components of the Krebs cycle can be synthesised inorganically.


Metal-rich ‘black smoker’ at a hydrothermal vent on the mid-Atlantic ridge(credit: Kate Larkin, Seascape, Belgium)

Until the rise of free oxygen in the Earth system some 2400 Ma ago, the oceans would have been awash with soluble ferrous iron. This would have been especially the case around hydrothermal vents that result from the interaction between water and hot mafic lavas of the oceanic crust, together with less abundant transition-metal ions, such as those of nickel and cobalt. The ocean-vent hypothesis for the origin of life seems set for a surge forward.

See also: Katsnelson, A. 2019. Iron can catalyse metabolic reactions without enzymes.

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A bad day at the end of the Cretaceous

Note: Earth-Pages will be closing as of early July, but will continue in another form at Earth-logs

The New Yorker magazine normally features journalism, commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, cartoons, and poetry. So it is odd that this Condé Nast glossy for the chattering classes snaffled online what may be the geological scoop of the 21st century so far (Preston, D. 2019. The day the dinosaurs died. The New Yorker 8 April 2019 issue). The paper that lies at the centre of the story had not been published and nor had the issue of The New Yorker in which Douglas Preston’s story was scheduled for publication. The very day (29 March 2019) that Britain was thwarted of its Brexit moment the world’s media was frothing with news about the end of another era; the Mesozoic. The paper itself was published online on April Fools’ Day with a title that is superficially arcane (DePalma, R.A. and 11 others 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, early online publication;p DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1817407116). But its contents are the stuff of dreams for any aspiring graduate student of palaeontology; the Indiana Jones opportunity.

An ‘onshore surge deposit’ occurs at many Western Hemisphere sites where the K-Pg boundary outcrops in terrestrial or shallow-marine sediments. The closer to the Chicxulub crater north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula the more obvious they are, for they result from the tsunamis that immediately followed the asteroid impact. Lead author Robert DePalma, now of the University of Kansas, became focussed on the dinosaur-rich, Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota as an undergraduate. Accepted for graduate studies he was directed to a project on the fauna of lacustrine sediments close to the K-Pg boundary layer, which is well-known in the area, and that’s what he has been engaged with ever since. In 2012 he was guided to a remarkable locality by a rockhound, disappointed because it exposed extremely fossil-rich sediments but was so soft that none could be extracted intact with a hammer and chisel. It turned out to have resulted from a surge along a sinuous river that had washed debris onto a point-bar deposit at the inside of a meander. The debris includes remains of both marine and terrestrial organisms and shows clear signs of having been swept upriver, i.e. from the sea and possibly the result of a tsunami. Being capped by a thin, iridium-rich layer of impactite, the 1.5 metre surge deposit is part of the K-Pg boundary layer, and probably represented only a few hours before being blanketed by ejecta.

This Event Deposit comprises two graded, fining-upwards units and thus two distinct surges, with a thin mat of vegetation fragments immediately below the Ir-rich clay cap that also contains sparse shocked quartz grains. The Event Deposit contains altered glass spherules throughout, which cgradually become smaller higher in the 1.5 m sequence. Some of the larger spherules produced ‘micro-craters’ in the sediments. Fossils include marine ammonite fragments (some still nacreous) and freshwater fish (paddlefish and sturgeon). The fish are so complete as to suggest an absence of scavengers. The paper itself contains little of the information that dominated Preston’s New Yorker article and the global media coverage. This included clear evidence that the fish ingested spherules, found clogging their gills and possible causing their death. There are examples of spherules embedded in amber formed from plant sap, which suggests sub-aerial fall of ejecta, and among the marine faunal samples are teeth of fish and reptiles (see DePalma et al’s Supplemental Data). The most startling finds reported by Preston are nowhere to be found in DePalma et al’s paper or its supplement. These include possible dinosaur feathers; a fragment of ceratopsian dinosaur skin attached to a hip bone; a burrow containing a mammal jaw that penetrates the K-Pg boundary layer; dinosaur remains, including an egg (complete with embryo) and hatchlings of dinosaurian groups found at deeper levels in the Hell Creek Formation. Previously, palaeontologists had found no dinosaur remains less than 3 m below the K-Pg boundary layer anywhere on Earth, prompting the suggestion that they had become extinct before the near-instantaneous effects of Chicxulub, and were perhaps victims of the general effects of the Deccan Trap volcanism. If verified in later peer-reviewed publications, DePalma et al’s work would help resolve the gradual vs sudden hypotheses for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

gill spherules

X-ray and CT images of impact spherules in the gills of a fossil sturgeon from the Tanis K-Pg site, North Dakota (credit DePalma et al. 2019; Fig. 6)

Preston reports some academic scepticism about DePalma’s work, and emphasises his showmanship at conferences; for instance, he named the site ‘Tanis’ after the ancient city in Egypt featured in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are geophysical queries too. If the inundation was by the on-shore effects of a tsunami it doesn’t tally with the abundance of ejecta fallout of glass spherules: tsunamis propagate in shallow seawater at speeds less than 50 km h-1  and more slowly still in channels, whereas impact ejecta travel much faster. This is acknowledged in the paper’s supplement, and the paper refers to a seiche wave activated by seismic waves associated with the Chicxulub impact which could have arrived in North Dakota at about the same time as its ejecta blanket. The paper’s authorship includes the imprimatur of other authorities in different geoscientific fields, including Walter Alvarez, jointly famed with his father Luis for the discovery of the K-Pg boundary horizon and its impact connections in 1981. So it carries considerable weight. No doubt further comment and further papers on the Tanis site will emerge: DePalma has yet to complete his PhD. It may become the lagerstätte of the K-Pg extinction; in DePalma’s words ‘It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark.’ …

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The Cambrian Explosion: a broader view

The base of the Cambrian has long been defined as the level where abundant shelly fossils and most phyla first occur in the stratigraphic record. That increase in diversity led to the nickname ‘Cambrian Explosion’, despite the fact that sheer numbers and diversity of lesser taxa took a long time to rise to ‘revolutionary’ levels. Yet a great deal of animal evolution was going on during the preceding Proterozoic Era that was revealed once palaeobiological research blossomed in rocks of that age range. Today, the earliest occurrences, or at least hints, of quite a few phyla can be traced to the last 100 Ma of the Precambrian. Clearly, the Cambrian Explosion needs a fresh look now that so many data are in. Any palaeontologist would benefit from reading a Perspective article in the latest issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution (Wood, R. and 8 others 2019. Integrated records of environmental change and evolution challenge the Cambrian Explosion. Nature Ecology & Evolution, v. 3, online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0821-6)

Rachel Wood of Edinburgh University and co-authors working elsewhere in Britain, Canada, Japan and Finland sift the growing wealth of fossil and trace-fossil evidence that predate the start of the Cambrian. They also consider the geochemical events that stand out in the Ediacaran Period that succeeds the Snowball Earth events of the Cryogenian. Their account recognises that the geochemical changes – principally a series of carbon-isotope (δ13C) excursions – may have resulted from tectonic changes. The carbon-isotope data mark a series of short-lived penetrations of oxygen-rich conditions deep into the ocean water column and longer periods of oxygen-starved deep water. Such perturbations in oceanic redox conditions ‘speed-up’ thorough the late-Ediacaran into the Cambrian: a profound and protracted transition from the Neoproterozoic world to that of the Phanerozoic. Over the same time span there is a ‘progressive addition of biological novelty’ in the form and function of the evolving biota, so that  each successive assemblage builds on the earlier advances.

The fossil evidence suggests that the earliest Ediacaran fauna was metazoan but with no sign of bilaterian affinities (i.e. having ‘heads’ and ‘tails’). The rise of bilaterians of which most animal phyla are members occupied the later Ediacaran , with the first evidence of locomotion – and almost by definition animals with ‘fore’ and ‘aft’ – being around 560 Ma. Each discrete shift from more to less oxic conditions in the oceans seems to have knocked-back animal life, the reverse being accompanied by diversification of survivors. Oxygenation at the very start of the Cambrian marked the beginnings of a diversification clearly manifested by animals capable of biomineralisation and the secretion of hard parts with clear patterns. Such ‘shelly faunas’ are present in the latest Ediacaran sediments but with a multiplicity of seemingly arbitrary forms, although trace fossils suggest soft-bodied animals did have definite morphological pattern.


Diorama of the Lower Cambrian Qingjiang fauna (Credit: Fu et al. 2019; Fig 4)

Adding yet more information to early metazoan history is the recently discovered Cambrian Qingjiang lagerstätte of Hubei Province in southern China dated at 518 Ma; similar in its exquisite preservation to the Burgess (508 Ma) and Chengjiang (518 Ma) biotas (Fu, D. and 14 others 2019. The Qingjiang biota—A Burgess Shale-type fossil Lagerstätte from the early Cambrian of South China. Science, v. 363, p. 1338-1342; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8800). The two previously discovered Cambrian lagerstättes are notable for their very diverse arthropod and sponge faunas. That at Qingjiang adds an abundance of cnidarians, jellyfish, sea anemones, corals and comb jellies, rare in the other two biotas, plus kinorhynchs or mud dragons – moulting invertebrates known only from Cambrian and modern sediments. The fossils at Qingjiang include only about 8% of the taxa of the same age found at Chengjiang, suggesting different environments

The idea of a sudden, discrete explosive event in the history of life, which coincided with the start of the Cambrian, now seems difficult to support. This should not damage the status of 541 Ma as the start of the Phanerozoic because stratigraphy basically gives form to the passage of time and has done since its emergence in the 19th century, so keeping the names of the divisions is essential to continuity.

Related articles: Daley, A.C. 2019. A treasure trove of Cambrian fossils. Science, v. 363, p. 1284-1285; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8644. Switek, B. 2019. Fossil Treasure Trove of Ancient Animals Unearthed in China (

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Better dating of Deccan Traps, and the K-Pg event

Note: Earth-Pages will be closing as of early July, but will continue in another form at Earth-logs

Predictably, the dialogue between the supporters of the Deccan Trap flood basalts and the Chicxulub impact as triggers that were responsible for the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era (the K-Pg event) continues. A recent issue of Science contains two new approaches focussing on the timing of flood basalt eruptions in western India relative to the age of the Chicxulub impact. One is based on dating the lavas using zircon U-Pb geochronology (Schoene, B. et al. 2019. U-Pb constraints on pulsed eruption of the Deccan Traps across the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Science, v. 363, p. 862-866; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2422), the other using 40Ar/39Ar dating of plagioclase feldspars (Sprain, C.G. et al. 2019. The eruptive tempo of Deccan volcanism in relation to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science, v. 363, p. 866-870; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav1446). Both studies were initiated for the same reason: previous dating of the sequence of flows in the Deccan Traps was limited by inadequate sampling of the flow sequence and/or high analytical uncertainties. All that could be said with confidence was that the outpouring of more than a million cubic kilometres of plume-related basaltic magma lasted around a million years (65.5 to 66.5 Ma) that encompassed the sudden extinction event and the possibly implicated Chicxulub impact. The age of the impact, as recorded by its iridium-rich ejecta found in sediments of the Denver Basin in Colorado, has been estimated from zircon U-Pb data at 66.016 ± 0.050 Ma; i.e. with a precision of around 50 thousand years.


The Deccan Traps in the Western Ghats of India (Credit: Wikipedia)

Because basalts rarely contain sufficient zircons to estimate a U-Pb age of their eruption, Blair Schoene and colleagues collected them from palaeosols or boles that commonly occur between flows and sometimes incorporate volcanic ash. Their data cover 23 boles and a single zircon-bearing basalt. Sprain et al. obtained 40Ar/39Ar ages from 19 flows, which they used to supplement 5 ages obtained by their team in previous studies that used the same analytical methods and 4 palaeosol ages from an earlier paper by Schoene’s group.

The zircon U-Pb data from palaeosols, combined with estimates of magma volumes that contributed to the lava sequence between each dated stratigraphic level, provide a record of the varying rates at which lavas accumulated. The results suggest four distinct periods of high-volume eruption separated by long. periods of relative quiescence. The second such pulse precedes the K-Pg event by up to 100 ka, the extinction and impact occurring in a period of quiescence. A few tens of thousand years after the event Deccan magmatism rose to its maximum intensity. Schoene’s group consider that this supports the notion that both magmatism and bolide impact drove environmental deterioration that culminated in mass extinction.

The Ar-Ar data derived from the basalt flows themselves, seem to tell a significantly different story. A plot of basalt accumulation, similarly derived from dating and stratigraphy, shows little if any sign of major magmatic pulses and periods of quiescence. Instead, Courtney Sprain’s team distinguish an average eruption rate of around 0.4 km3 per year before the K-Pg event and 0.6 km3 per year following it. Yet they observe from climate proxy data that there seems to have been only minor climatic change (about 2 to 3 °C warming) during the period around and after the K-Pg event when some 75% of the lavas flooded out. Yet during the pre-extinction period of slower effusion global temperature rose by 4°C then fell back to pre-eruption levels immediately before the K-Pg event. This odd mismatch between magma production and climate, based on their data, prompts Sprain et al. to speculate on possible shifts in the emission of climate-changing gases during the period Deccan volcanism: warming by carbon dioxide – either from the magma or older carbon-rich sediments heated by it; cooling induced by stratospheric sulfate aerosols formed by volcanogenic SO2 emissions. That would imply a complex scenario of changes in the composition of gas emissions of either type. They suggest that one conceivable trigger for the post-extinction climate shift may have been exhaustion of the magma source’s sulfur-rich volatile content before the Chicxulub impact added enough energy to the Earth system to generate the massive extrusions that followed it. But their view peters out in a demand for ‘better understanding of [the Deccan Traps’] volatile release’.

A curious case of empiricism seeming to resolve the K-Pg conundrum, on the one hand, yet pushing the resolution further off, on the other …

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Plants first to succumb to the end-Permian event

We have become accustomed to thinking that up to 90% of organisms were snuffed out by the catastrophe at the Permian-Triassic boundary 252 Ma ago. Those are the figures for marine organisms, whose record in sediments is the most complete. It has also been estimated to have lasted a mere 60 ka, and the recovery in the Early Triassic to have taken as long as 10 Ma. There are hints of three separate pulses of extinction related to: initial gas emission from the Siberian Traps; coal fires; and release of methane from sea-floor gas hydrates at the peak of global warming. Various terrestrial sequences record the collapse of dense woodlands, so that the Early Triassic is devoid of coals that are widespread in the preceding Late Permian. A new detailed study of terrestrial sediments in the Sydney Basin of eastern Australia reveals something new (Fielding, C.R. and 10 others 2019. Age and pattern of the southern high-latitude continental end-Permian extinction constrained by multiproxy analysis. Nature Communications, v. 10, online publications: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07934-z).


The distinctive, tongue-like form of Glossopteris leaves that dominate the coal-bearing Permian strata of the southern coninents. Their occurrence in South America, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica prompted Alfred Wegener to suggest that these modern continents had been united in Pangaea by Permian times: a key to continental drift. (Credit: Getty Images)

Christopher Fielding or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and colleagues focused on pollens, geochemistry and detailed dating of the sedimentary succession across the P-Tr boundary exposed on the New South Wales coast. The stratigraphy is intricately documented by a 1 km deep well core that penetrates a more or less unbroken fluviatile and deltaic sequence that contains eleven beds of volcanic ash. The igneous layers are key to calibrating age throughout the sequence (259.10 ± 0.17 to 247.87 ± 0.11 Ma using zircon U-Pb methods). The pollens change abruptly from those of a Permian flora, dominated by tongue-like glossopterid plants, to a different association that includes conifers. The change coincides with a geochemical ‘spike’ in the abundance of nickel and a brief change in the degree of alteration of detrital fledspars to clay minerals. The first implicates the delivery of massive amounts of nickel to the atmosphere, probably by the eruption of the Siberian Traps , which contain major economic nickel deposits. The second feature suggests a brief period of warmer and more humid climatic conditions. A third geochemical change is the onset of oscillations in the abundance of 13C that are thought to record major changes in plant life across the planet. These features would have been an easily predicted association with the 252 Ma mass extinction were it not for the fact that the radiometric dating places them about 400 thousand years before the well-known changes in global animal life. Detailed dating of the Siberian Traps links the collapse of Glossopteris and coal formation to the earliest extrusion of flood basalts, which suggests that the animal extinctions were driven by cumulative effects of the later outpourings

Related article: Chris Fielding comments on the paper at Nature Research/Ecology and Evolution

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Something large moved 2 billion years ago

More than 50 years ago a group of schoolchildren discovered a fronded fossil (Charnia) in the Precambrian rocks of Charnwood Forest in the English Midlands. Since then it has been clear that multicellular life originated before the Cambrian Period, when the first tangible life had previously been considered to have emerged. Discovery of the rich Ediacaran fauna of quilted, baglike and disc-like animals in 635 Ma old Neoproterozoic sediments in South Australia, and many other occurrences re-established the start of the ‘carnival of animals’ in the Ediacaran Period (635 to 541 Ma). It happened to follow the climatic and environmental turmoil of at least two Snowball Earth episodes during the preceding Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma), which has led to a flurry of suggestions for the transition from protozoan to metazoan life. Yet, applying a ‘molecular-clock’ approach to the genetic differences between living metazoan organisms seems to suggest a considerable earlier evolutionary event that started ‘life as we know it’. That may have been confirmed by a discovery in much older sediments in Gabon, West Africa.

A sequence of shallow-marine sediments in the Francevillian Series in Gabon was laid down at a time of fluctuating sea level around 2100 Ma ago, when the upper oceans had become oxygenated. In them are black shales that preserve an abundance of intricate sedimentary features. Among them are curious stringy structures rich in crystalline pyrite (Fe2S). They are infilled wiggly tubes that lie in the shale bedding. CT scans reveal that the bedding has been flattened around the tubules as it became lithified. So the tubes formed while the sediment was wet and soft (El Albani, A. and 22 others 2019. Organism motility in an oxygenated shallow-marine environment 2.1 billion years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online preprint; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1815721116). They look very like burrows. Up to 5 mm across, they can be considered large by comparison with almost all organisms known from that time. The exception comes from the same stratigraphic Series in Gabon. In 2010, El Albani and colleagues published an account of fossils preserved by pyrite that look like fried eggs, 1 to 2 cm across, with scalloped edges. Internal structures revealed by CT scanning include radial slits in the ‘whites’ and folding within the central ‘yolk’. That paper reported the geochemical presence in the host shales of steranes, which are breakdown products of steroids that are unique to eukaryotes. Could these organisms and the wiggly tube-like trace fossils indicate the presence of the earliest metazoans in the Francevillian Series?


Palaeoproterozoic fossils from the Francevillian Series in Gabon. Top: greytone photographs of burrow-like trace fossils (Credit: El Albani et al. 2019; Fig.1). Bottom: colour photograph and 3 CT scans of discoidal fossil (Credit: El Albani et al. 2010; Fig. 4).

Until the discoveries in Gabon, the oldest organic structure that had been suggested to be a metazoan was the rare Grypania, a spiral, strap-like fossil found in a variety of strata ranging in age from 1870 to 650 Ma. Being made of a structureless ribbon of graphite, Grypania seems most likely to have been made by colonial bacteria. The two Gabon life forms cannot be disposed of quite so easily. The discoids have organised structures rivalling those in Ediacaran animals, while the wiggly tubes clearly seem to indicate something capable of movement. In both cases preservation is by iron sulfide, which suggests the presence at some stage of chemo-autotrophic bacteria that reduce sulfate ions to sulfide. Could these not have formed mats taking up irregular discs and plates? The burrows may have been formed by unicellular eukaryotes, one type of which – the slime moulds – is capable of aggregating together to form multi-celled reproductive structures as well as living freely as single amoeba. Some form slug-like masses that are capable of movement; not metazoans, but perhaps their precursors.

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A unifying idea for the origin of life

The nickel in stainless steel, the platinum in catalytic converters and the gold in jewellery, electronic circuits and Fort Knox should all be much harder to find in the Earth’s crust. Had the early Earth formed only by accretion and then the massive chemical resetting mechanism of the collision that produced the Moon all three would lie far beyond reach. Both formation events would have led to an extremely hot young Earth; indeed the second is believed to have left the outer Earth and Moon completely molten. All three are siderophile metals and have such a strong affinity for metallic iron that they would mostly have been dragged down to each body’s core as it formed in the early few hundred million years of the Earth-Moon system, leaving very much less in the mantle than rock analyses show. This emerged as a central theme at the Origin of Life Conference held in Atlanta GA, USA in October 2018. The idea stemmed from two papers published in 2015 that reported excessive amounts in basaltic material from both Earth and Moon of a tungsten isotope (182W) that forms when a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf), another strongly siderophile metal, decays. Hafnium too must have been strongly depleted in the outer parts of both bodies when their cores formed. The excesses are explained by substantial accretion of material rich in metallic iron to their outer layers shortly after Moon-formation, some being in large metallic asteroids able to penetrate to hundreds of kilometres. Hot iron is capable of removing oxygen from water vapour and other gases containing oxygen, thereby being oxidised. The counterpart would have been the release of massive amounts of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that form gases when combined with oxygen. The Earth’s atmosphere would have become highly reducing.

Had the atmosphere started out as an oxidising environment, as thought for many decades, it would have posed considerable difficulties for the generation at the surface of hydrocarbon compounds that are the sine qua non for the origin of life. That is why theories about abiogenesis (life formed from inorganic matter) hitherto have focussed on highly reducing environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents where hydrogen is produced by alteration of mantle minerals. The new idea revitalises Darwin’s original idea of life having originated in ‘a warm little pond’. How it has changed the game as regards the first step in life, the so-called ‘RNA World’ can be found in a detailed summary of the seemingly almost frenzied Origin of Life Conference (Service, R.F. 2019. Seeing the dawn. Science, v. 363, p. 116-119; DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6423.116).

Isotope geochemistry has also entered the mix in other regards, particularly that gleaned from tiny grains of the mineral zircon that survived intact from as little as 70 Ma after the Moon-forming and late-accretion events to end up (3 billion years ago) in the now famous Mount Narryer Quartzite of Western Australia. The oldest of these zircons (4.4 Ga) suggest that granitic rocks had formed the earliest vestiges of continental crust far back in the Hadean Eon: Only silica-rich magmas contain enough zirconium for zircon (ZrSiO4) to crystallise. Oxygen isotope studies of them suggest that at that very early date they had come into contact with liquid water, presumably at the Earth’s surface. That suggests that perhaps there were isolated islands of early continental materials; now vanished from the geological record. A 4.1 Ga zircon population revealed something more surprising: graphite flakes with carbon isotopes enriched in 12C that suggests the zircons may have incorporated carbon from living organisms.


A possible timeline for the origin of life during the Hadean Eon (Credit: Service, R.F. 2019, Science)

Such a suite of evidence has given organic chemists more environmental leeway to suggest a wealth of complex reactions at the Hadean surface that may have generated the early organic compounds needed as building blocks for RNA, such as aldehydes and sugars (specifically ribose that is part of both RNA and DNA), and the amino acids forming the A-C-G-U ‘letters’ of RNA, some catalysed by the now abundant siderophile metal nickel. One author seems gleefully to have resurrected Darwin’s ‘warm little pond’ by suggesting periodic exposure above sea level of abiogenic precursors to volcanic sulfur dioxide that could hasten some key reactions and create large masses of such precursors which rain would have channelled into ‘puddles and lakes’. The upshot is that the RNA World precursor to the self-replication conferred on subsequent life by DNA is speculated to have been around 4.35 Ga, 50 Ma after the Earth had cooled sufficiently to have surface water dotted with specks of continental material.

There are caveats in Robert Services summary, but the Atlanta conferences seems set to form a turning point in experimental palaeobiology studies.

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Pterosaurs had feathers and fur

Pterosaurs, which include the pterodactyls and pteranodons, were the first vertebrates to achieve proper, flapping flight. In the popular imagination they are regarded as ‘flying dinosaurs’, whereas the anatomy of the two groups is significantly different. The first of them appeared in the Upper Triassic around 235 Ma ago, at roughly the same time as the earliest known dinosaurs. The anatomical differences make it difficult to decide on a common ancestry for the two. But detailed analysis of pterosaur anatomy suggests that they share enough features with dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds for all four groups to have descended from ancestral archosaurs that were living in the early Triassic, and they survived the mass extinction at the end of that Period. Birds, on the other hand, first appear in the fossil record during the Upper Jurassic 70 Ma later than pterosaurs. They are now widely regarded as descendants of early theropod dinosaurs, which are known commonly to have had fur and feathers.

Pterosaurs leapt into the public imagination in the final chapter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World with a clatter of ‘dry, leathery wings’ as Professor George Challenger’s captive pterodactyl from northern Brazil’s isolated Roraima tepui plateau made its successful bid for escape from a Zoological Institute meeting in Queens Hall. Yet, far from being leathery, pterosaurs turned out, in the late 1990’s, to have carried filamentous pycnofibres akin to mammalian hair. Widespread reports in the world press during the week before Christmas in 2018 hailed a further development that may have rescued pterosaurs from Conan Doyle’s 1912 description before it sprang from its perch:

It was malicious, horrible, with two small red eyes as bright as points of burning coal. Its long, savage mouth, which it held half-open, was full of a double row of sharp-like teeth. Its shoulders were humped, and round them was draped what appeared to be a faded grey shawl. It was the devil of our childhood in person.

Two specimens from the Middle to Upper Jurassic Yanliiao lagerstätte in China show far more (Yang, Z. and 8 others 2018. Pterosaur integumentary structures with complex feather-like branching. Nature Ecology & Evolution, v. 3, p. 24-30; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0728-7). Their pycnofibres show branching tufts, similar to those found in some theropods dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurs. They also resemble mammalian underfur fibres, whose air-trapping properties provide efficient thermal insulation. Both body and wings of these pterosaurs are furry, which the authors suggest may also have helped reduce drag during flight, while those around the mouth may have had a sensory function similar to those carried by some living birds. Moreover, some of the filaments contain black and red pigments.


Artist’s impression of a Jurassic anurognathid pterosaur from China (Credit: Yang et al 2018; Fig. 4)

Pterosaurs may have independently developed fur and feathers; a case of parallel evolution in response to similar evolutionary pressures facing dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Alternatively, they may have had a deep evolutionary origin in the common ancestors of all these animal groups as far back as the Upper Carboniferous and Lower Permian.

Related articles: Nature Editorial 2018. Fur and fossils. Nature, v. 564, p. 301-302; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-07800-4; King, A. 2018. Pterosaurs sported feathers, claim scientists (The Scientist); Conniff, R. 2018. Pterosaurs just keep getting weirder (Scientific American); New discovery pushes origin of feathers back by 70 million years (Science Daily)

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Oceanic hydrothermal vents and the origin of life

A range of indirect evidence has been used to suggest that life originated deep in the oceans around hydrothermal vents, such as signs of early organic matter in association with Archaean pillow lavas. One particularly persuasive observation is that a number of proteins and other cell chemicals are constructed around metal sulfide groups. Such sulfides are common around hydrothermal ‘smokers’ associated with oceanic rift systems. Moreover, Fischer-Tropsch reactions between carbon monoxide and hydrogen produce quite complex hydrocarbon molecules under laboratory conditions. Such hydrogenation of a carbon-bearing gas requires a catalyst, a commonly used one being chromium oxide (see Abiotic formation of hydrocarbons by oceanic hydrothermal circulation May 2004). It also turns out that fluids emitted by sea-floor hydrothermal systems are sometimes rich in free hydrogen, formed by the breakdown of olivine in ultramafic rocks to form hydroxylated minerals such as serpentine and talc. The fact that chromium is abundant in ultramafic rocks, in the form of its oxide chromite, elevates the possibility that Fischer-Tropsch reactions may have been a crucial part of the life-forming process on the early Earth. What is needed is evidence that such reactions do occur in natural settings.


A white carbonate mound forming at the Lost City hydrothermal vent field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Credit: Baross 2018)

One site on the mid-Atlantic ridge spreading centre, the Lost City vent field, operates because of serpentinisation of peridotites exposed on the ocean floor, to form carbonate-rich plumes and rocky towers; ‘white smokers’. So that is an obvious place to test the abiotic theory for the origin of life. Past analyses of the vents have yielded a whole range of organic molecules, including alkanes, formates, acetates and pyruvates, that are possible precursors for such a natural process. Revisiting Lost City with advanced analytical techniques has taken the quest a major step forward (Ménez, B. et al. 2018. Abiotic synthesis of amino acids in the recesses of the oceanic lithosphere. Nature, advance online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0684-z). The researchers from France and Kazakhstan focused on rock drilled from 170 m below the vent system, probably beyond the influence of surface contamination from living organisms. Using several methods they detected the nitrogen-containing amino acid tryptophan, and that alone. Had they detected other amino acids their exciting result would have been severely tempered by the possibility of surface organic contamination. The formation of tryptophan implies that its abiotic formation had to involve the reduction of elemental nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3). Bénédicte Ménez and colleagues suggest that the iron-rich clay saponite, which is a common product of serpentine alteration at low temperatures, may have catalysed such reduction and amino-acid synthesis through Friedel–Crafts reactions. Fascinating as this discovery may be, it is just a step towards confirming life’s abiogenesis. It also permits speculation that similar evidence may be found elsewhere in the Solar System on rocky bodies, such as the moons Enceladus and Europa that orbit Saturn and Jupiter respectively. That is, if the rock base of hydrothermal systems thought to occur there can be reached.

Related article: Baross, J.A. 2018. The rocky road to biomolecules. Nature, v. 564, p. 42-43; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-07262-8.

Neanderthal Mum meets Denisovan Dad

Two bone fragments from the Denisova Cave – the former abode of an 18th century Russian hermit called Denis – in the Altai region of Siberia yielded ancient  DNA. One matches that from previously analysed Neanderthal remains and the other a genome that could only be ascribed to a hitherto unknown ancient-human population, now known as the Denisovans. Since their discovery further analysis of both modern and ancient DNA has shown that modern humans living outside of Africa contain a few percent of DNA from both ancient-human groups. Soon after leaving Africa some of their ancestors interbred with both; indeed a 40 ka-old modern-human jaw from Romania revealed genetic evidence that the individual had a Neanderthal great-great grandparent. Their descendants spread far and wide to populate Eurasia, Australasia and the Americas. Using the ancient DNA to peer back in time suggests that Neanderthals and Denisovans diverged from a common ancestor between 470 and 380 ka, itself having split from modern-human ancestry between 770 to 550 ka. Denisovan DNA also contains evidence that its ancestry included segments that could only have come from a totally unknown hominin species. Interestingly, DNA from the Neanderthal bone fragment found at Denisova contains fragments from an anatomically modern-human.

Tourists at the entrance to Denisova Cave, Rus...

Tourists at the entrance to Denisova Cave, Russia (credit: Wikipedia)

With such riches from tiny fragments of human bones unearthed from the Denisova Cave, it is no surprise that the team led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has subsequently analysed others that showed signs of human proteins. The latest ‘takes the biscuit’. A fragment of limb bone from someone who was at least 13 years old yielded DNA commensurate with their having been the child of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father (Slon, V. and 18 others 2018. The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Nature, v. 560, published on-line; doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0455-x). Their child was a girl, who has been nicknamed ‘Denny’ by the team, though ‘Denise’ might seem more appropriate. The only clues to what her father, or any Denisovan, might have looked like stem from a few teeth and a skull fragment from the cave that have yielded Denisovan DNA. The teeth are much larger and the skull fragment is thicker than those of Neanderthals, suggesting that Denisovans were distinctly bigger and more robust than even the sturdy Neanderthals.

The father came from a population related to a later Denisovan found in the cave – the first to be sequenced. This suggests long-term occupancy of the area by Denisovans. But his genome also carries traces of Neanderthal ancestry. Surprisingly, the mother is more closely related to Croatian Neanderthals, rather than to an earlier Neanderthal found in the cave. Neanderthals were clearly capable of migrating between Europe and eastern Eurasia; more than 5000 km in this case. Even though very few archaic humans have been genetically sequenced it is beginning to look as if genetic mixing between diverse hominin groups in the last half million years was common, when they actually met. A custom of marrying outside a closely related group (exogamy) has been popular throughout recorded history; indeed it makes sound genetic sense. With the tiny human population density during the Late Pleistocene, it may then have been cause for mutual celebration.  As documented in Chapters 2 and 3 of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (Oxford University Press, 2018) human origins since about 470 ka until the present chart a history of episodic migrations and genetic mixing that certainly makes nonsense of earlier ideas of ‘racial purity’ and casts doubt even on the term ‘species’ as regards members of the genus Homo.

If we are ever to discover who the Denisovans were and what they looked like, the evidence is likely to come from East Asia at latitudes where climate favours preservation of DNA. Advanced sequencing equipment and techniques are now operational in China, where suspected Denisovan remains have been found

See also: Warren, M. 2018. First ancient-human hybrid. Nature, v. 560, p. 417-418; doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06004-0); Sample, I. 2018. Offspring of Neanderthal and Denisovan identified for first time. The Guardian (22 August 2918).

A revised and updated edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook