Biological activity and the Earth's surface evolution: Insights from carbon, sulfur, nitrogen and iron stable isotopes in the rock record

Christophe THOMAZO, Daniele Luigi PINTI, Vincent BUSIGNY, Magali ADER, Ko HASHIZUME & Pascal PHILIPPOT

en Comptes Rendus Palevol 8 (7) - Pages 665-678

Published on 30 November 2009

This article is a part of the thematic issue Traces of past or present life: Bio-signatures and potential life indicators?

The search for early Earth biological activity is hindered by the scarcity of the rock record. The very few exposed sedimentary rocks have all been affected by secondary processes such as metamorphism and weathering, which might have distorted morphological microfossils and biogenic minerals beyond recognition and have altered organic matter to kerogen. The search for biological activity in such rocks therefore relies entirely on chemical, molecular or isotopic indicators. A powerful tool used for this purpose is the stable isotope signature of elements related to life (C, N, S, Fe). It provides key informations not only on the metabolic pathways operating at the time of the sediment deposition, but more globally on the biogeochemical cycling of these elements and thus on the Earth's surface evolution. Here, we review the basis of stable isotope biogeochemistry for these isotopic systems. Rather than an exhaustive approach, we address some examples to illustrate how they can be used as biosignatures of early life and as proxies for its environment, while keeping in mind what their limitations are. We then focus on the covariations among these isotopic systems during the Archean time period to show that they convey important information both on the evolution of the redox state of the terrestrial surface reservoirs and on co-occurring ecosystems in the Archean.


Isotopes, Biosignature, Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur, Iron, Mass independent fractionation, Archean

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