Feast or famine? Bioinorganic chemistry and nutrient crises in Precambrian basins

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Earth Sciences


The history of early life on Earth is tightly coupled to evolving environmental conditions. Throughout Earths earliest history, atmospheric oxygen has fluctuated in ways that we are still trying to understand. These fluctuations would have strongly impacted biology in many different ways. Because biology requires several different chemical elements aside from carbon, the availability of these nutrients would have strongly controlled which ones were selected to perform crucial biological functions and at which time. The remnants of these early nutrients are left behind in the genomes of archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes today, providing tantalizing clues as to which elements were available and when.

However, our knowledge of how bioessential elements were distributed in the early oceans is limited. This is mainly due to the fact that the sedimentary rocks that preserve such critical windows of Earth's history have experienced complex histories after they initially formed, essentially erasing the chemical clues that can help us answer some of these questions. This project has uncovered a mineral that is preserved in sedimentary rocks several billions of years old which captured critical information related to the availability of bioessential nutrients over time. Through laboratory synthesis work, we will understand how this mineral initially formed from seawater, which chemical elements enter its structure and in what proportions, and understand how these clues are preserved over geologic history. By selecting critical intervals of Earth's history where this mineral was formed in abundance, most notably in a unique sedimentary rock type called banded iron formation, we can reconstruct the nutrient availability of Earth's early oceans, directly testing hypotheses that relate biological evolution to environmental change.

Planned Impact

The nature of the project implies that non-academic end users are likely to be most interested in the inferences and information provided by the project results. Hence dissemination of results is critical, via both direct and indirect routes. The indirect path features dissemination of results and engagement with the academic community via international conference presentations, collaborative travel, and publishing of data on University websites and NERC data repositories in order to drive the model development from which end users will benefit. Potential end users will also be engaged directly and informed of the progress of the project via delivery of presentations at the AGU and Goldschmidt conferences, which have historically featured presentation and discussion amongst the academic community as well as industrial representatives.

Oxford has a highly effective press office, with one officer dedicated to the work of the division that includes Earth Sciences. The Oxford science press officer also runs the Oxford Science Blog that has a wide reach (including social media such as Twitter and Facebook) and aims to communicate to the public, via the Internet, current research outputs by Oxford researchers. Oxford is also part of i-Tunes U, with considerable potential for the dissemination of material to the global public in the form of downloads and podcasts. The University has a climate web portal (www.climate.ox.ac.uk) and associated Oxford Climate Research Network (OCRN), which is an initiative aiming to promote collaborations between scientists who investigate climate-related issues in various departments at Oxford, and increase the impact and visibility of climate research both within and outside the University. With more than 120 scientists included, the network has an expansive research agenda which aims to deepen knowledge of the climate system, inform policy and planning, and develop instruments to improve partnerships with government, research and business.

We have a strong commitment to outreach activities and the wider communication of scientific results to policy makers, environmental charities, pressure groups, NGOs, student-bodies, and the wider public. We aim to make extensive use of existing personal contacts, research group, and wider University of Oxford resources to disseminate both emerging and final results of my study to wider interest users. We intend to take advantage of NERC's training opportunities in science communication, and will also populate the NERC Science Impacts Database and draft a popular science article for publication in NERC's Planet Earth magazine, with the assistance of institutional press officers and Planet Earth editors.

We aim to ensure that scientific outputs from the project will be used in the development of material for Departmental, Divisional and University Science Open Days at the University of Oxford, and outreach efforts aimed at Schools and new admissions led by the Department and the Division - such as Oxford Sparks (http://www.oxfordsparks.net/). Initiatives such as this are an ideal mechanism for engagement of the general public with the scientific topics of the proposed project, and will also co-ordinate a network of educational activities with local schools, including a collection of lectures and interactive activities on scientific topics available to be delivered in schools on a rotating basis. Furthermore, the opportunity for the PDRA to engage in outreach activity allows for enhancement and demonstrable application of transferrable skills, as part of the PDRA's career development.
Description Diamond Light Source Direct Access Beamtime
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Diamond Light Source 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 02/2016
Title Solubility, kinetics and metal drawdown during precipitation of Fe(II)-silicate over a range of temperatures 
Description Solubility and kinetic data for Fe(II)-silicate precipitation over a range of temperatures, as well as metal drawdown and metal release during diagenesis. Characterisation data for solid precipitates using FTIR and XRD. The XRDML data should be opened on Panalytical highscore, and the XLS file should be opened with Excel, Numbers or OpenOffice. Paper currently under review 'Micronutrient availability in ferruginous, silica-rich Precambrian oceans', Rosalie Tostevin, Imad Ahmed 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2023 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/nationalgeosciencedatacentre/citedData/catalogue/c40cdd54-583a-43b2-b5fe-1784...
Description Oxford University Museum of Natural History Exhibition 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My staff and I have engaged in the development of a new museum exhibition (set for opening in Fall 2018) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the natural history of bacteria. This public exhibition includes the examination of problems such as the possibility of bacterial life on other planets and the extent to which we understand that possibility. We have contributed directly to the scientific material and content on which the exhibition is based.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Public Lecture - Geological Society of Glasgow 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public Lecture at the Geological Society of Glasgow, entitled: "Re-animating Precambrian Oceans". The lecture featured new results acquired during the grant and their broader scientific and societal relevance.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description University of Cambridge Earth Sciences Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar at the University of Cambridge, Department of Earth Sciences, entitled: Geochemical and sedimentological constraints on pre-GOE ocean chemistry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018