Mass-independent fractionation of sulfur isotopes in Archean sediments: strong evidence for an anoxic Archean atmosphere

Astrobiology. 2002 Spring;2(1):27-41. doi: 10.1089/153110702753621321.


Mass-independent fractionation (MIF) of sulfur isotopes has been reported in sediments of Archean and Early Proterozoic Age (> 2.3 Ga) but not in younger rocks. The only fractionation mechanism that is consistent with the data on all four sulfur isotopes involves atmospheric photochemical reactions such as SO2 photolysis. We have used a one-dimensional photochemical model to investigate how the isotopic fractionation produced during SO2 photolysis would have been transferred to other gaseous and particulate sulfur-bearing species in both low-O2 and high-O2 atmospheres. We show that in atmospheres with O2 concentrations < 10(-5) times the present atmospheric level (PAL), sulfur would have been removed from the atmosphere in a variety of different oxidation states, each of which would have had its own distinct isotopic signature. By contrast, in atmospheres with O2 concentrations > or = 10(-5) PAL, all sulfur-bearing species would have passed through the oceanic sulfate reservoir before being incorporated into sediments, so any signature of MIF would have been lost. We conclude that the atmospheric O2 concentration must have been < 10(-5) PAL prior to 2.3 Ga.

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / chemistry*
  • Atmosphere*
  • Molecular Weight
  • Sulfur Isotopes / analysis*


  • Sulfur Isotopes