Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

The story of the bands

Something that strikes me about many scientific discoveries is how they so often come from someone noticing something the rest of us had overlooked or thought insignificant -- and afterward, most importantly, the person asking, "Why?"

A now-familiar example of this is the discovery by the father-and-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez of the thin iridium-bearing clay layer at the boundary between Cretaceous rocks and Paleocene rocks -- analysis of which led to the discovery of the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub Meteorite Impact.  Without their questioning why there was a narrow layer of heavy-metal-enriched clay at the boundary, everywhere on Earth where there are rocks of that age, we might never have found out about one of the major events in the history of life on Earth.

Another example, less well known, has to do with the banded iron formations found in locations all over the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and the United States.  They're striking in appearance, sometimes hundreds of meters thick, with alternating layers of light-colored iron-poor and dark, reddish-brown iron-rich chert or limestone.  Here's an example from near Fortescue Falls in Western Australia:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Graeme Churchard from Bristol, UK, Banded iron formation Dales Gorge, CC BY 2.0]

Most of us, I think, would say "pretty rock formation" and leave it at that; a smaller number would recognize the fact that they were sedimentary, and wonder why the colors alternate.  Geologist Preston Cloud, though, took it several large steps farther -- and what he came up with is a little mind-blowing.

What first struck Cloud as curious about banded iron formations is that they're all about the same age.  Regardless of whether they're in Australia or Ontario, just about every banded iron formation studied was deposited around 2.4 billion years ago.  But what could create this pattern not just in one location, but in widely-scattered spots all over the planet?  Whatever the process was must have happened everywhere simultaneously -- and rapidly.

Cloud's hypothesis, which is now well-accepted, is that banded iron formations represent the fingerprint of something called the Great Oxidation Event.  Here's basically what we think happened.

Early living things were largely scavengers, living from abiotically-produced organic compounds dissolved in seawater (and the decomposing bits of dead cells).  These compounds were abundant -- an anoxic atmosphere, rich in reducing compounds like ammonia, methane, and carbon monoxide, together with an energy source like ultraviolet light, generates organic compounds of all sorts.  (As the Miller-Urey experiment conclusively demonstrated.)

But there's always competition between species, and sometimes mutations can create proteins or structures that allow organisms to able to access resources faster or more efficiently than their neighbors.  And that's what happened when a single-celled bacteria evolved a gene to produce chlorophyll, which can quickly capture energy from visible light and store it as chemical energy.

In other words: photosynthesis.

This had only one downside, but it was a huge one.  Photosynthesis generates molecular oxygen.  Oxygen is highly reactive, a strong oxidizer (thus the name), and tears apart organic compounds as quickly as they form.  The presence of oxygen, first dissolved in seawater and then liberated into the atmosphere, did three things.

First, it shut off the abiotic production of excess organic compounds, eliminating the food source for most of life on Earth.

Second, it was directly toxic to most cells, except for the (very) few which had detoxifying enzymes like superoxide dismutase to cope with living in an oxygenated environment -- or which were capable of metabolizing it, using a pathway we now call aerobic respiration and which we have become completely dependent upon.  (It's amazing to think about, but our energy-production system originally evolved as a way to mitigate the poisonous effects of molecular oxygen.)

Third, the oxygen reacted with dissolved ferrous (II) ions in seawater, and altered them to mostly-insoluble ferric (III) ions, which settled out on the ocean floor.  This process, however, bound up the available oxygen, so the reaction dropped oxygen levels, and for a while any iron eroded into the oceans was dissolved as ferrous ions again.  But eventually the photosynthesizing bacteria pumped out enough oxygen that the iron precipitated once more.  The result: alternating layers of iron-poor chert when the oxygen levels were low, and iron-rich chert when the oxygen levels rose.

Eventually, of course, the oxygen rose and stayed high.  By this time, damn near all life on Earth had died; the only ones left were anaerobes that could hide (like the bacteria we still have in deep-sea mud and other anaerobic habitats), and aerobes like our own ancestors that had metabolic pathways to cope with the presence of oxygen.

And the alternating pattern of light and dark layers in banded iron formations chronicle the rising and falling of oxygen during one of the pivotal moments of Earth's prehistory.

Certainly a large part of being a successful scientist is intensive training in a specific field, but I think sometimes there's not enough attention given to another facet of it -- the role of creativity.  The scientists who make important discoveries are usually the ones who notice things the rest of us might just walk past, wonder about them, and most importantly, draw connections between disparate realms to find answers (in this case, geology, chemistry, and biology).  Without this combination of technical knowledge, curiosity, and insight, we would know far less about the universe we live in -- and what an impoverished understanding we would be left with.


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