Early Life Record from Nitrogen Isotopes



Biological activity fractionates the nitrogen isotopes in a peculiar way, making them a reliable biosignature and an accurate paleoenvironmental proxy. Nitrogen has been ignored for long time, being extremely fragile compared to the more stable graphitic forms of C; however, N has an advantage over other isotopic systems such as those of C and S. The dominant source of N at the surface of the Earth, that is, the atmospheric triple-bonded N2, is so stable that only a very limited number of metabolic processes can bridge the abiotic and biotic world. Therefore we can draw relatively simple flux models for N. In this contribution, we review the N isotopic record in the last 4 billions years. Large isotopic shifts recorded by nitrogen are related to specific metabolic changes as a direct response to major environmental stress such as the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere and the evolution of nitrifiers and denitrifiers in the ocean. These isotopic changes are not unique but well correlated with those of C and Fe, indicating that nitrogen can be successfully used for modeling the interplay of changing microbial metabolisms over Earth’s history and relate them to precise environmental changes.


Nitrogen isotopes Isotopic biomarkers Biological fixation Nitrification Denitrification Ammonium Cherts Great Oxygenation Event 



This review is the result of a long-standing and fruitful collaboration between DLP and KH, which was enriched during years with precious expertise and friendship from C. Cloquet, J.P. Gallien, M. Massault, B. Orberger, V. Rouchon, C. Wagner, R. Wirth and many others. Research of DLP was funded by JSPS (Japan), European Community, CNRS (France) and NSERC (Canada). Research of KH was mainly supported by JSPS and MEXT. We wish to thank an anonymous reviewer for the useful comments and the editors of this book for inviting to write this review. Michelle Laithier drew Fig. 1. This is GEOTOP contribution 2009–0016. In loving memory of my mother, Magda (DLP).


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.GEOTOP and Département des Sciences de la Terre et de l’AtmosphèreUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontréalCanada
  2. 2.Department of Earth & Space Sciences, Graduate School of ScienceOsaka UniversityToyonakaJapan

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