Monday, March 21, 2016

Nickel and timed

One of the problems with studying the origin and evolution of life is that our mother Earth has a shady memory.  The farther back in time we go, the rarer and more fragmented the rock record becomes. What this basically means is that for most of the first third of Earth’s history, we run out of rock record before we get back far enough it time to discover the origin of various fundamental early steps in our own evolution. Even for more recent developments, like the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the recent great extinction events, the rock record is frustratingly incomplete. This has several effects.
On the observational side, it requires scientists to draw bigger and bigger conclusions from slimmer and slimmer data. Was there life in the Hadean? If all you have is a pinhead pile of ground up zircons, there is only so much evidence you can put forth.
On the theoretical side, there is of course even more speculation and unconstrained hypothesizing. With older rocks more common on smaller, deader worlds, and hypotheses like Panspermia positing that space is no barrier to the spread of life, there is literally a universe of possibilities. As a result, many theorists have lapsed into quasimystical approaches to the framework for how life has evolved from very early primitive micro-organisms to space age simians who none-the-less waste their time reading this blog. The approaches generally fall into two broad categories.
The first is the “Manifest Destiny” approach. This school of though believes that life is an unstoppable, inexorable force that will climb every mountain, contaminate every spacecraft, and spread in an inexorable evolving wave throughout the universe. Most astrobiologists subscribe to this belief, as it is easier to justify your life’s work if you think that there is actually something out there to find.
The second is the “There but for the Grace of God” approach, which envisages life as a blind, reactive encrustation to grand events and processes far beyond its control. Proponents tend to be hard rock geologists and extinction researchers.
It is important to note that these are hypothetical endmembers- most researchers lie on a solid solution between them, albeit generally closer to one end than the other. It is also important to note that although I have deliberately used non-scientific labels, as these leanings are often manifestations of inclination rather than deduction, an inclination towards one camp or another is in no way an indication that a particular research is not a great scientist. Rather, it is an attempt to colorfully illustrate two diametric approaches taken to thinking about the early history of life.
Tonight, however, I’d like to draw attention to a paper that combines these approaches in a fascinating way. Konhauser et al. 2007 posit an Archean Earth where Nickel-dependent methanogens had evolved to become the dominant life form on the planet. The oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere was not a result of oxidative photosynthesis evolving and outcompeting the methanogens. Rather, the decrease in high-temperature, nickel-rich komatiitic volcanism at the end of the Archean weakened the methanogens by creating a shortage of the nickel they needed to survive, reducing methane production and allowing oxygen producers to take over.
            Scientifically, this idea is appealing because increasing lines of evidence, such as that summarized in Geosonnet 21, indicate that oxygen production was going on long before the great oxygenation at a limited local level. But for hundreds of millions of years, it was never more than a transient, small scale local phenomenon.  This hypothesis is also nice in that it ties the large scale tectonic and igneous changes between the Archean and the Proterozoic with the change in atmosphere. Linking those two fundamental shifts in the Earth’s history is always nice, as having them coincidentally synchronous seems somewhat implausible.
            On a purely personal level, however, the proposed narrative reminds me of the H. P. Lovecraft novel, “At the Mountains of Madness” The difference is that the Archean overlords who ruled the hostile ancient Earth were not 3 meters tall. They were 3 microns tall instead. And it was mantle convection, not decadence in intergalactic civilizations, that allowed our distant aerobic forbearers to liberate their planet.

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