Probing Earth's earliest ecosystems: a multi-proxy study of the ~2.7 Ga Belingwe Greenstone Belt, Zimbabwe

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway University of London
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Biology has been a major driver for global change since the very earliest stages of our planetary history. Life first evolved on Earth as early as 3.8 billion years ago, but for the first ~3 billion years it was composed entirely of small unicellular organisms lacking a nucleus (prokaryotes). Unlike their larger eukaryotic counterparts which mainly use oxygen and organic carbon as fuel for respiration, prokaryotes have diverse metabolisms that produce energy from a wide array of chemical compounds, including sulfide, methane, and even toxic metals. These metabolisms catalyse chemical reactions that only proceed rapidly with biological intervention, and their products can have an irrevocable effect on the chemistry of the environment.

The modern Earth environment carries the irrefutable imprint of current and past biochemical reactions, as does the geologic record of past environments. Before ~2.4 billion years ago, Earth's atmosphere was dominated by carbon dioxide and methane (with little to no oxygen), and the oceans were rich in dissolved iron and, periodically, sulfide. This environment was inhospitable to large multi-cellular organisms, but prokaryotic ("microbial") ecosystems thrived. Sometime around ~2.7 billion years ago, organisms called cyanobacteria (the precursors to modern plants) evolved the ability to generate energy and biomass by combining H2O with CO2 in the presence of sunlight. This newly developed metabolism, termed oxygenic photosynthesis, constituted a major biological innovation and significantly increased the efficiency of global carbon cycling. Of particular significance to our history of planetary change - the waste product of this metabolism was molecular oxygen, which subsequently began to accumulate in the environment for the first time ever. The eventual buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere, termed the Great Oxidation Event, was a prerequisite for the evolution of animals and multi-cellular organisms, and eventually enabled the global biosphere that we inhabit today.

Despite the importance of progressive oxygenation on the early Earth, geoscientists still lack a fundamental understanding of how ancient ecosystems contributed to oxygen production and responded to molecular oxygen in the environment. Central to unravelling feedbacks between global carbon fixation and oxygen production is understanding the changes in the cycling of other biologically-required nutrients that react with O2. Nitrogen, in particular, is ubiquitous to life and required for the formation of nearly all biomolecules, including nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and proteins. The marine nitrogen cycle is driven largely by biological processes which produce changes that can be measured in nitrogen-bearing compounds and isotopes preserved in the rock record.

This research seeks to investigate the interplay of elemental transformations in early microbial ecosystems, using geochemical analyses of pristine sediments that formed ~2.7 billion years ago. Of central importance to this project are new drill cores that are extremely well-preserved for rocks of this time period, and include some of the earliest evidence for fossilized microbial ecosystems (possibly including cyanobacteria). We will measure proxies for biogeochemical N, C, and S cycling, along with additional geochemical analyses for oxygen availability, to examine interactions between the oxygen, carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen cycles during early biospheric evolution. These records from ~2.7 billion year old rocks will contribute to our fundamental understanding of the chemical and biological evolution of Earth's surface environments during the time period most closely associated with cyanobacterial evolution, a prerequisite to biospheric oxygenation and the proliferation of complex life on Earth.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of Research:

The beneficiaries of this research beyond the scientific community will be the wider public, the public sector, and the research staff, through planned outreach and training activities. The question of how life evolved on Earth and how the planet became habitable are topics of great interest to the general public, and are amenable to outreach activities that can easily be presented to a broad audience. This research will additionally benefit educators and students in secondary school science programs (geology, chemistry, and biology curriculums) in Scotland and across the UK, through the University of St Andrews GeoBus program. Finally, the PDRA funded by this research will gain valuable employment skills through various scientific, training and outreach activities.

Engagement with Users and Beneficiaries:

The principal investigators plan to highlight their work to the public wherever possible via public talks, popular science articles, and public outreach activities. The researchers involved in this study all have excellent records in this regard, and will continue to build upon this important area of activity. For example, PI Zerkle has contributed to numerous outreach programs aimed at the general public, including Space Day (at Pennsylvania State University) and Maryland Day (at the University of Maryland). We are further committed to advertising our findings through the media and through popular articles, and also have significant track records in this regard, e.g., PI Zerkle's research has recently been featured in both New Scientist and National Geographic (; We also propose to highlight major outcomes of this proposal, as they are generated, through press releases at the University of St Andrews and Royal Holloway University of London. Communication of scientific findings to the general public will foster increased interest in and understanding of environmental science by the broader community, and enable informed decisions by the community and policy-makers.

Educators and students in secondary school science programs in Scotland and across the UK will directly benefit from this research through the wildly popular GeoBus program (as detailed in Pathways to Impact). Communicating scientific research using hands-on activities in secondary schools will provide educators access to additional resources, inspire young learners, and form a bridge between industry, higher educational institutes, Research Councils, and schools, to highlight opportunities for career development in the sciences.

Finally, through leading and participating in various outreach activities (e.g., GeoBus and Bright Club; see Pathways to Impact), the post-doctoral researcher will receive a wide range of training and experience that will enhance his/her general skills in leadership, organization and science communication. Through the planned research activities, the PDRA will additionally develop more focused skills in critical thinking, numerical modelling, analytical chemistry and Earth system science. These are ideal transferable skills to the employment sector, in either the academic realm or in industry, in particular in consideration of issues related to environmental science and global change.


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Description The work has studied early microbial communities preserved in drill cores from the Belingwe belt, Zimbabwe. The research is showing a complex set of microbial consortia existed 2.7 billion years ago. The work gives important new insights into the origin of the nitrogen cycle.
Exploitation Route Deeper understanding of the early evolution of the atmsophere. Useful in calibrating phylogenetic clocks.
Sectors Other

Description The work is of considerable public interest, as it throws light on early life. It was the basis of a major invited public lecture - Bennett Lecture, Leicester.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Public Lecture: 56th Annual Bennett Lecture, Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture - annual 'named' lecture of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, Univ. of Leicester
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Royal Holloway Science festival 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Several activities - all coordinated by us;
1. fossil trail
2. Volcano exhibit and eruption
3. lecture
4. Gold panning
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015