Developing a Metal Proxy for the Rise of Early Terrestrial Life

Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Samuel Phillip Rochelle1, Ariel D Anbar2, Hilairy Ellen Hartnett1, Stephen J Romaniello3 and Amisha T Poret-Peterson1, (1)Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States, (2)Arizona State University, Department of Chemistry, Tempe, AZ, United States, (3)Arizona State University, School of Earth & Space Exploration, Tempe, AZ, United States
Previous work has shown that the presence of biological soil crusts (BSCs) may affect the concentrations of uranium and other transition metals by influencing metal dissolution, solubility, and transport.(1) These effects may provide a proxy for the presence of microbial mat communities in paleosols, possibly constraining the timing of the rise of early terrestrial ecosystems. Thus, in an effort to uncover possible biosignatures, this study examines metal abundances in modern desert BSCs as a possible analogue for early terrestrial life.

We present results from a preliminary study comparing crusted and uncrusted soils from a low-desert site near Casa Grande, Arizona. Seventeen 5-cm soil cores were collected and the bulk elemental composition of the top 1 cm of crusted (9 samples) and non-crusted (8 samples) soils were analyzed by quadrupole ICP-MS with a typical measurement precision between 2-5%. Metal concentrations were normalized to aluminum (Al) to minimize dilution effects due to variations in carbonate and quartz content.

Although the mean concentrations of nearly all elements were similar in crusted and uncrusted sites, the variability in the normalized concentrations of some of the elements, such as uranium, were different between crusted and uncrusted sites. The average U/Al ratio at the crusted site was 25 ± 1 µg U/ g Al and the average U/Al ratio at the uncrusted site was 27 ± 4 µg U/ g Al. Bartlett’s and Levene’s tests were used to confirm that the U/Al ratio was significantly more variable in the uncrusted sites as compared to the crusted sites. Iron (Fe), vanadium (V) and cesium (Cs) showed a similar pattern which was significant under Bartlett’s but not Levene’s test.

As U, Fe, and V solubility and transport are redox-sensitive, we hypothesize that their aqueous mobility could have been impacted by diurnal redox swings in the photosynthetic crusts, possibly resulting in the homogenization of local cm-scale variations in background soil concentrations. Future work will test this hypothesis by 1) analyzing samples from a wider range of sites to determine if this pattern is robust and 2) measuring 238U/235U ratios throughout the crust profile to determine if there is evidence for redox-dependent cycling and fractionation of U within modern BSCs.

(1) Beraldi-Campesi, H. et al. (2009) Geobiology, 7:348-359.