The late Precambrian greening of the Earth

Nature. 2009 Aug 6;460(7256):728-32. doi: 10.1038/nature08213. Epub 2009 Jul 8.


Many aspects of the carbon cycle can be assessed from temporal changes in the (13)C/(12)C ratio of oceanic bicarbonate. (13)C/(12)C can temporarily rise when large amounts of (13)C-depleted photosynthetic organic matter are buried at enhanced rates, and can decrease if phytomass is rapidly oxidized or if low (13)C is rapidly released from methane clathrates. Assuming that variations of the marine (13)C/(12)C ratio are directly recorded in carbonate rocks, thousands of carbon isotope analyses of late Precambrian examples have been published to correlate these otherwise undatable strata and to document perturbations to the carbon cycle just before the great expansion of metazoan life. Low (13)C/(12)C in some Neoproterozoic carbonates is considered evidence of carbon cycle perturbations unique to the Precambrian. These include complete oxidation of all organic matter in the ocean and complete productivity collapse such that low-(13)C/(12)C hydrothermal CO(2) becomes the main input of carbon. Here we compile all published oxygen and carbon isotope data for Neoproterozoic marine carbonates, and consider them in terms of processes known to alter the isotopic composition during transformation of the initial precipitate into limestone/dolostone. We show that the combined oxygen and carbon isotope systematics are identical to those of well-understood Phanerozoic examples that lithified in coastal pore fluids, receiving a large groundwater influx of photosynthetic carbon from terrestrial phytomass. Rather than being perturbations to the carbon cycle, widely reported decreases in (13)C/(12)C in Neoproterozoic carbonates are more easily interpreted in the same way as is done for Phanerozoic examples. This influx of terrestrial carbon is not apparent in carbonates older than approximately 850 Myr, so we infer an explosion of photosynthesizing communities on late Precambrian land surfaces. As a result, biotically enhanced weathering generated carbon-bearing soils on a large scale and their detrital sedimentation sequestered carbon. This facilitated a rise in O(2) necessary for the expansion of multicellular life.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Calcium Carbonate / chemistry
  • Carbon / chemistry
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Carbonates / analysis*
  • Carbonates / chemistry*
  • Earth, Planet
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry*
  • History, Ancient
  • Magnesium / chemistry
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Oxygen / analysis
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Oxygen Isotopes
  • Photosynthesis*
  • Plants / metabolism


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Carbonates
  • Oxygen Isotopes
  • Carbon
  • Calcium Carbonate
  • Magnesium
  • Oxygen
  • calcium magnesium carbonate