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Isotopic Inferences on Early Ecosystems

  • Andrew H. Knoll (a1) and Donald E. Canfield (a2)

Long thought to be inaccessible to empirical inquiry, Earth's early biosphere has in recent decades become a central focus of evolutionary and paleobiological research. Knowledge of Precambrian ecosystems comes from three principal sources. The conventional fossil record consists of the compressed and permineralized remains of cyanobacteria, protists and other microorganisms (e.g., Knoll, 1996), complemented by stromatolites and oncolites, the accretionary trace fossils of microbial mat communities (Walter, 1976). Independent inferences about early evolution can be drawn from molecular phylogenies (Pace, 1997). The third principal source of information comprises biogeochemical signatures encrypted in the chemistry of ancient sedimentary rocks. Biomarker molecular fossils and distinctive isotopic compositions record the metabolic activities of organisms not necessarily preserved morphologically (Summons and Walter, 1990). In this paper, we review the inferences about early life and environments that can be drawn from the isotopic records of carbon and sulfur.

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