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The Isotopic Imprint of Life on an Evolving Planet

Abstract

Stable isotope compositions of biologically cycled elements encode information about the interaction between life and environment. On Earth, geochemical biomarkers have been used to probe the extent, nature, and activity of modern and ancient organisms. However, extracting biological information from stable isotopic compositions requires untangling the interconnected nature of the Earth’s biogeochemical system, and must be viewed through the lens of evolving metabolisms on an evolving planet. In this chapter, we provide an introduction to isotope geobiology and to the geobiological history of Earth. We discuss the isotope biogeochemistry of the biologically essential elements carbon, nitrogen and sulfur, and we summarize their distribution on the modern Earth as an interconnected network of isotopically fractionated reservoirs with contrasting residence times. We show how this framework can be used to explore the evolution of life and environments on the ancient Earth, which is our closest accessible analogue for an extraterrestrial planet.

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Acknowledgements

This paper is the product of the geobiology working group within the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) workshop ‘Reading Terrestrial Planet Evolution in Isotopes and Element Measurements’. We would like to thank ISSI and Europlanet for their support. Thanks to Peter Crockford, who provided invaluable feedback on the manuscript. We would also like to thank Guest Editor Helmut Lammer and three anonymous reviewers for careful and constructive comments.

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Reading Terrestrial Planet Evolution in Isotopes and Element Measurements

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Lloyd, M.K., McClelland, H.L.O., Antler, G. et al. The Isotopic Imprint of Life on an Evolving Planet. Space Sci Rev 216, 112 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-020-00730-6

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Keywords

  • Isotope geochemistry
  • Biogeochemical cycles
  • Geobiology
  • Evolution of life
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen
  • Sulfur