Research Shows Ocean Chemistry Delayed Evolution by 1 Billion Years

sea shell photo

Photo via mickeymox via Flickr CC

Researchers from Newcastle University have published a new study in Nature Geoscience illustrating that the chemical make-up of our early oceans may have delayed the evolution of life on our planet by as much as 1 billion years. Their research shows for the first time a chemical "layering" in the oceans that kept oxygen from reaching the deep ocean. That lack of oxygen may explain the long wait for development of life, and the sudden boom of animal life later on. According to PhysOrg, "Using novel geochemical techniques developed by Newcastle University's Dr Simon Poulton, the team found that beneath oxygenated surface waters, mid-depth oceanic waters were rich in sulphide about 1.8 billion years ago, conditions that may have persisted until oxygenation of the deep ocean more than1 billion years later. These widespread sulphidic conditions close to the continents, coupled with deeper waters that remained oxygen-free and iron-rich, would have placed major restrictions on both the timing and pace of biological evolution."

Dr. Poulton states, "This has major implications as it would have potentially restricted the evolution of higher life forms that require oxygen, explaining why animals appear so suddenly, relatively late in the geological record."

As scientists study the co-evolution of the environment and life on our planet, the chemical make-up of the ocean during this timeframe is much-needed information. Currently, we're experiencing a rise in the acidity of oceans - which impacts everything from shell fish to corals to jellyfish - as well as expanded dead zones, or oxygen-depleted areas where marine life is unable to survive. Understanding how species evolve in an ocean with a chemistry that is beginning to mirror these prehistoric conditions is vital to protecting marine life struggling to adapt today.

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