Isotopic constraints on lightning as a source of fixed nitrogen in Earth’s early biosphere

Patrick Barth*, Eva Elisabeth Stueeken, Christiane Helling, Lukas Rossmanith, Yuqian Peng, Wendell Walters, Mark Claire

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Bioavailable nitrogen is thought to be a requirement for the origin and sustenance of life. Before the onset of biological nitrogen fixation, abiotic pathways to fix atmospheric N2 must have been prominent to provide bioavailable nitrogen to Earth’s earliest ecosystems. Lightning has been shown to produce fixed nitrogen as nitrite and nitrate in both modern atmospheres dominated by N2 and O2 and atmospheres dominated by N2 and CO2 analogous to the Archaean Earth. However, a better understanding of the isotopic fingerprints of lightning-generated fixed nitrogen is needed to assess the role of this process on early Earth. Here we present results from spark discharge experiments in N2−CO2 and N2−O2 gas mixtures. Our experiments suggest that lightning-driven nitrogen fixation may have been similarly efficient in the Archaean atmosphere, compared with modern times. Measurements of the isotopic ratio (δ15N) of the discharge-produced nitrite and nitrate in solution show very low values of −6‰ to −15‰ after equilibration with the gas phase with a calculated endmember composition of −17‰. These results are much lower than most δ15N values documented from the sedimentary rock record, which supports the development of biological nitrogen fixation earlier than 3.2 billion years ago. However, some Paleoarchean records (3.7 billion years ago) may be consistent with lightning-derived nitrogen input, highlighting the potential role of this process for the earliest ecosystems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)478-484
Number of pages10
JournalNature Geoscience
Early online date22 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Early Earth
  • Lightning
  • Nitrogen isotopes
  • Origin of life


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