Oxygen produced by cyanobacteria in simulated Archaean conditions partly oxidizes ferrous iron but mostly escapes—conclusions about early evolution


The Earth has had a permanently oxic atmosphere only since the great oxygenation event (GOE) 2.3–2.4 billion years ago but recent geochemical research has revealed short periods of oxygen in the atmosphere up to a billion years earlier before the permanent oxygenation. If these “whiffs” of oxygen truly occurred, then oxygen-evolving (proto)cyanobacteria must have existed throughout the Archaean aeon. Trapping of oxygen by ferrous iron and other reduced substances present in Archaean oceans has often been suggested to explain why the oxygen content of the atmosphere remained negligible before the GOE although cyanobacteria produced oxygen. We tested this hypothesis by growing cyanobacteria in anaerobic high-CO2 atmosphere in a medium with a high concentration of ferrous iron. Microcystins are known to chelate iron, which prompted us also to test the effects of microcystins and nodularins on iron tolerance. The results show that all tested cyanobacteria, especially nitrogen-fixing species grown in the absence of nitrate, and irrespective of the ability to produce cyanotoxins, were iron sensitive in aerobic conditions but tolerated high concentrations of iron in anaerobicity. This result suggests that current cyanobacteria would have tolerated the high-iron content of Archaean oceans. However, only 1 % of the oxygen produced by the cyanobacterial culture was trapped by iron, suggesting that large-scale cyanobacterial photosynthesis would have oxygenated the atmosphere even if cyanobacteria grew in a reducing ocean. Recent genomic analysis suggesting that ability to colonize seawater is a secondary trait in cyanobacteria may offer a partial explanation for the sustained inefficiency of cyanobacterial photosynthesis during the Archaean aeon, as fresh water has always covered a very small fraction of the Earth’s surface. If oxygenic photosynthesis originated in fresh water, then the GOE marks the adaptation of cyanobacteria to seawater, and the late-Proterozoic increase in oxygen concentration of the atmosphere is caused by full oxidation of the oceans.

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This work was supported by Turun yliopistosäätiö (SR, ET, 2008–2011), Academy of Finland (ET, TT; Grants 259075, 271832, 265807) and Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (LS). COST action ESI1105 “CYANOCOST—cyanobacterial blooms and toxins in water resources: occurrence, impacts and management” is acknowledged for adding value to this study through networking and knowledge sharing with European experts.

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Rantamäki, S., Meriluoto, J., Spoof, L. et al. Oxygen produced by cyanobacteria in simulated Archaean conditions partly oxidizes ferrous iron but mostly escapes—conclusions about early evolution. Photosynth Res 130, 103–111 (2016) doi:10.1007/s11120-016-0231-4

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  • Archaean era
  • Atmosphere
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Evolution
  • Fresh water
  • Cyanotoxins