Ocean chemistry and the evolution of multicellularity

University dissertation from Stockholm : Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University

Abstract: Oxygen has been assumed to be a vital trigger for the evolution of multicellular life forms on Earth, partly based on its power to promote substantial energy flux in cell respiration and partly as biosynthesis of compounds like collagen require oxygen. However, the co-evolution of large life and the Earth’s chemical environment is not well understood at present, and there is particular disagreement in the field about whether the Cambrian explosion of animal life forms was a chemical or biological event. Here, I discuss the evolution of multicellularity, divided in simple or complex forms, in light of the evolution of ocean water column chemistry in both the Proterozoic and the early Paleozoic. Even if the appearance of animals is confined to the Ediacaran, other fossil evidence of complex multicellularity can be argued to occur in the Paleo-, Meso- and Neoproterozic. These finds are, if anything, reason enough to keep searching for early experiments in complex multicellularity. In this search, we may have to expand our toolbox by looking at e.g. trace element aggregations and the isotopic composition of key elements. Research over the last couple of years have accentuated that much of the interval between the Ediacaran and the Devonian was dramatic with transitional ocean chemistry at the same time that large forms of animal life experienced dynamic radiation and ecological expansion. Results presented here describe some aspects of this time, including geochemistry from Chengjiang and a mechanism for preserving non-mineralized Cambrian animals that was partly dependent on specific ocean chemistry. Also, geochemical proxies using iron and molybdenum are used to infer a Paleozoic atmosphere with less than 50% of present levels of oxygen. The possibility that the subsequent rise is due to terrestrial plants and linked to the appearance of large predatory fish is discussed. Finally, the first mass extinction in the end-Ordovician is linked to low oxygen concentrations in the water column. It appears that more than oxygen was critical to allow the radiation of large life forms on Earth, but that chemistry and tectonic activity were intimately intertwined to biology, in a dance of permitting and being determined by certain aspects of ecology.