A Popular Tool to Trace Earth’s Oxygen History Can Give False PositivesDecember 12, 2017 / Written by: Georgia Tech
Close-up view of layered sedimentary rocks representative of those used in this study. Each layer records a snapshot of the Earth system over millions to billions of years. Credit: Georgia Tech / Yale - Reinhard / Planavsky
For researchers pursuing the primordial history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, a new study might sour some “Eureka!” moments. A contemporary tool used to trace oxygen by examining ancient rock strata can produce false positives, according to the study, and the wayward results can mask as exhilarating discoveries.
Common molecules called ligands can bias the results of a popular chemical tracer called the chromium (Cr) isotope system, which is used to test sedimentary rock layers for clues about atmospheric oxygen levels during the epoch when the rock formed. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have demonstrated in the lab that many ligands could have created a signal very similar to that of molecular oxygen.
“There are some geographical locations and ancient situations where measurable signals could have been generated that had nothing to do with how much oxygen was around,” said Chris Reinhard, one of the study’s lead authors. Though the new research may impact how some recent findings are assessed, that doesn’t mean the tool isn’t useful overall.
Rock record tool
“We’re not trying to revolutionize the way the tool is viewed,” said Yuanzhi Tang, who co-led the study. “This is about understanding its possible limitations to make discerning use of it in particular cases.”
Tang and Reinhard, both assistant professors of biogeochemistry in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, published their team’s results in a study on November 17, 2017, in the journal Nature Communications. Their work was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the NASA Exobiology program, and the Agouron Institute.
“On a global level, the chromium isotope system is still a great indicator of atmospheric oxygen levels through the ages,” Tang said. “The issue we exposed in the lab is more local with isolated samples, especially during eras when there wasn’t much atmospheric oxygen.”
Source: [Georgia Tech]
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