Isotopic evidence for biological nitrogen fixation by molybdenum-nitrogenase from 3.2 Gyr

Eva Elisabeth Stüeken*, Roger Buick, Bradley M. Guy, Matthew C. Koehler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

130 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for all organisms that must have been available since the origin of life. Abiotic processes including hydrothermal reduction1, photochemical reactions2, or lightning discharge3 could have converted atmospheric N2 into assimilable NH4+, HCN, or NOx species, collectively termed fixed nitrogen. But these sources may have been small on the early Earth, severely limiting the size of the primordial biosphere4. The evolution of the nitrogen-fixing enzyme nitrogenase, which reduces atmospheric N2 to organic NH4+, thus represented a major breakthrough in the radiation of life, but its timing is uncertain5,6. Here we present nitrogen isotope ratios with a mean of 0.0 ± 1.2‰ from marine and fluvial sedimentary rocks of prehnite–pumpellyite to greenschist metamorphic grade between 3.2 and 2.75 billion years ago. These data cannot readily be explained by abiotic processes and therefore suggest biological nitrogen fixation, most probably using molybdenum-based nitrogenase as opposed to other variants that impart significant negative fractionations7. Our data place a minimum age constraint of 3.2 billion years on the origin of biological nitrogen fixation and suggest that molybdenum was bioavailable in the mid-Archaean ocean long before the Great Oxidation Event.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)666-669
Number of pages9
JournalNature
Volume520
Issue number7549
Early online date16 Feb 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2015

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