Nav: Home

How predatory plankton created modern ecosystems after 'Snowball Earth'

February 01, 2019

Around 635 to 720 million years ago, during Earth's most severe glacial period, the Earth was twice almost completely covered by ice, according to current hypotheses. The question of how life survived these 'Snowball Earth' glaciations, lasting up to about 50 million years, has occupied the most eminent scientists for many decades. An international team, led by Dutch and German researchers of the Max Planck Society, now found the first detailed glimpse of life after the 'Snowball' in the form of newly discovered ancient molecules, buried in old rocks.

'All higher animal life forms, including us humans, produce cholesterol. Algae and bacteria produce their own characteristic fat molecules.' says first author Lennart van Maldegem from Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biogeochemistry, who recently moved to the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. 'Such fat molecules can survive in rocks for millions of years, as the oldest (chemical) remnants of organisms, and tell us now what type of life thrived in the former oceans long ago'.

But the fossil fats the researchers recently discovered in Brazilian rocks, deposited just after the last Snowball glaciation, were not what they suspected. 'Absolutely not', says team-leader Christian Hallmann from MPI for Biogeochemistry, 'we were completely puzzled, because these molecules looked quite different from what we've ever seen before!' Using sophisticated separation techniques, the team managed to purify minuscule amounts of the mysterious molecule and identify its structure by nuclear magnetic resonance in the NMR department of Christian Griesinger at Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. 'This is highly remarkable itself' according to Klaus Wolkenstein from MPI for Biophysical Chemistry and the Geoscience Centre of the University of Göttingen: 'Never has a structure been elucidated with such a small amount of such an old molecule'. The structure was chemically identified as 25,28-bisnorgammacerane -- abbreviated as BNG as van Maldegem suggests.

Fossil fats most likely from heterotropic plankton

Yet the origin of the compound remained enigmatic. 'We of course looked if we could find it elsewhere' says van Maldegem, who then studied hundreds of ancient rock samples, with rather surprising success. 'In particular the Grand Canyon rocks really were an eye-opener' says Hallmann. Although nowadays mostly sweltering hot, these rocks had also been buried under kilometres of glacial ice around 700 million years ago. Detailed additional analyses of molecules in Grand Canyon rocks--including presumed BNG-precursors, the distribution of steroids and stable carbon isotopic patterns--led the authors to conclude that the new BNG molecule most likely derives from heterotrophic plankton, marine microbes that rely on consuming other organisms for gaining energy. 'Unlike for example green algae that engage in photosynthesis and thus belong to autotrophic organisms, these heterotrophic microorganisms were true predators that gained energy by hunting and devouring other algae and bacteria' according to van Maldegem.

Predatory species create room for algae and other plankton

While predation is common amongst plankton in modern oceans, the discovery that it was so prominent 635 million years ago, exactly after the Snowball Earth glaciation, is a big deal for the science community. 'Parallel to the occurrence of the enigmatic BNG molecule we observe the transition from a world whose oceans contained virtually only bacteria, to a more modern Earth system containing many more algae. We think that massive predation helped to 'clear' out the bacteria-dominated oceans and make space for algae' says van Maldegem. The resulting more complex feeding networks provided the dietary requirements for larger, more intricate lifeforms to evolve--including the lineages that all animals, and eventually we humans, derive from. The massive onset of predation probably played a crucial role in the transformation of our planet and its ecosystems to its present state.
-end-
Original publication

Lennart M. van Maldegem, Pierre Sansjofre, Johan W. H. Weijers, Klaus Wolkenstein, Paul K. Strother, Lars Wörmer, Jens Hefter, Benjamin J. Nettersheim, Yosuke Hoshino, Stefan Schouten, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Nilamoni Nath, Christian Griesinger, Nikolay B. Kuznetsov, Marcel Elie, Marcus Elvert, Erik Tegelaar, Gerd Gleixner & Christian Hallmann

Bisnorgammacerane traces predatory pressure and the persistent rise of algal ecosystems after Snowball Earth
Nature Communications, 29 January 2019

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Related Algae Articles:

Algae in the oceans often steal genes from bacteria
Algae in the oceans often steal genes from bacteria to gain beneficial attributes, such as the ability to tolerate stressful environments or break down carbohydrates for food, according to a Rutgers co-authored study.
Algae team rosters could help ID 'super corals'
U.S. and Australian researchers have found a potential tool for identifying stress-tolerant ''super corals.'' In experiments that simulated climate change stress, researchers found corals that best survived had symbiotic algae communities with similar features.
Algae shown to improve gastrointestinal health
A green, single-celled organism called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii has served as a model species for topics spanning algae-based biofuels to plant evolution.
How do corals make the most of their symbiotic algae?
Corals depend on their symbiotic relationships with the algae that they host.
Algae and bacteria team up to increase hydrogen production
A University of Cordoba research group combined algae and bacteria in order to produce biohydrogen, fuel of the future
Algae as a resource: Chemical tricks from the sea
The chemical process by which bacteria break down algae into an energy source for the marine food chain, has been unknown - until now.
Left out to dry: A more efficient way to harvest algae biomass
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba develop a new system for evaporating the water from algae biomass with reusable nanoporous graphene, which can lead to cheaper, more environmentally friendly biofuels and fine chemicals.
Algae could prevent limb amputation
A new algae-based treatment could reduce the need for amputation in people with critical limb ischemia, according to new research funded by the British Heart Foundation, published today in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine.
Turning algae into fuel
A team of University of Utah chemical engineers have developed a new kind of jet mixer for creating biomass from algae that extracts the lipids from the watery plants with much less energy than the older extraction method.
The algae's third eye
Scientists at the Universities of Würzburg and Bielefeld in Germany have discovered an unusual new light sensor in green algae.
More Algae News and Algae Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.