Caltech geochemist Clair Patterson (1922–1995) helped galvanize the environmental movement 50 years ago when he announced that highly toxic lead could be found essentially everywhere on Earth, including in our own bodies—and that very little of it was due to natural causes.
In a paper published in the September 1965 issue of Archives of Environmental Health, Patterson challenged the prevailing belief that industrial and natural sources contributed roughly equal amounts of ingestible lead, and that the aggregate level we absorbed was safe. Instead, he wrote, "A new approach to this matter suggests that the average resident of the United States is being subjected to severe chronic lead insult." He estimated that our "lead burden" was as much as 100 times that of our preindustrial ancestors—often to just below the threshold of acute toxicity.
Lead poisoning was known to the ancients. Vitruvius, designer of aqueducts for Julius Caesar, wrote in Book VIII of De Architectura that "water is much more wholesome from earthenware pipes than from lead pipes . . . [water] seems to be made injurious by lead." Lead accumulates in the body, where it can have profound effects on the central nervous system. Children exposed to high lead levels often acquire permanent learning disabilities and behavioral disorders.
When Patterson arrived at Caltech as a research fellow in geochemistry in 1952, he was looking not to save the world but to figure out how old it was. Doing so required him to measure the precise amounts of various isotopes of uranium and lead. (Isotopes are atoms of the same element that contain different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei.) Uranium-238 decays very, very slowly into lead-206, while uranium-235 decays less slowly into lead-207. Both rates are well known, so measuring the ratios of lead atoms to uranium ones shows how much uranium has disappeared and allows the sample's age to be calculated.
Patterson presumed that the inner solar system's rocky planets and meteorites had all coalesced at the same time, and that the meteorites had survived essentially unchanged ever since. Using an instrument called a mass spectrometer and working in a clean room he had designed and built himself, Patterson counted the individual lead atoms in a meteorite sample recovered from Canyon Diablo near Meteor Crater, Arizona. In a landmark paper published in 1956, he established Earth's age as 4.55 billion years.
However, there are four common isotopes of lead, and Patterson had to take them all into account in his calculations. He had announced his findings at a conference in 1955, and he had continued to refine his results as the paper worked its way through the review process. But there he hit a snag—his analytical skills had become so finely honed that he was finding lead everywhere. He needed to know the source of this contamination in order to eliminate it, and he took it on himself to find out.
Patterson's 1965 Environmental Health paper summarized that work. With M. Tatsumoto of the U.S. Geological Survey, he found that the ocean off of southern California was lead-laden at the surface but that the contamination disappeared rapidly with depth. They concluded that the likely culprit was tetraethyl lead, a widespread gasoline additive that emerged from the tailpipe of automobiles as very fine lead particles. Patterson and research fellow T. J. Chow crisscrossed the Pacific aboard research vessels run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and found the same profile of lead levels versus depth. Then, in the winter of 1962–63, Patterson and Tatsumoto collected snow at an altitude of 7,000 feet on Mount Lassen in northern California. The lead contamination there was 10 to 100 times worse than at sea. Patterson concluded that it had fallen from the skies. Its isotopic fingerprint was a perfect match for air samples from Los Angeles—located 500 miles to the south. It also matched gasoline samples obtained by Chow in San Diego. Furthermore, the isotope fingerprint was different from that of lead found in prehistoric sediments off the California coast.
"The atmosphere of the northern hemisphere contains about 1,000 times more than natural amounts of lead," Patterson wrote, and he called for the "elimination of some of the most serious sources of lead pollution such as lead alkyls [i.e., tetraethyl lead], insecticides, food can solder, water service pipes, kitchenware glazes, and paints; and a reevaluation by persons in positions of responsibility in the field of public health of their role in the matter."
Patterson's paper was his first shot in the war against lead pollution, bureaucratic inertia, and big business that he would wage for the rest of his life. He won: the Clean Air Act of 1970 authorized the development of national air-quality standards, including emission controls on cars. In 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that more than 100,000 tons of lead went into gasoline every month; by 1980 that figure would be less than 50,000 tons, and the concentration of lead in the average American's blood would drop by nearly 50 percent as well. The Consumer Product Safety Commission would ban lead-based indoor house paints in 1977 (flakes containing brightly colored lead pigments often found their way into children's mouths). And in 1986, the EPA prohibited tetraethyl lead in gasoline.
For more than 20 years, Caltech geologist Jean-Philippe Avouac has collaborated with the Department of Mines and Geology of Nepal to study the Himalayas—the most active, above-water mountain range on Earth—to learn more about the processes that build mountains and trigger earthquakes. Over that period, he and his colleagues have installed a network of GPS stations in Nepal that allows them to monitor the way Earth's crust moves during and in between earthquakes. So when he heard on April 25 that a magnitude 7.8 earthquake had struck near Gorkha, Nepal, not far from Kathmandu, he thought he knew what to expect—utter devastation throughout Kathmandu and a death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
"At first when I saw the news trickling in from Kathmandu, I thought there was a problem of communication, that we weren't hearing the full extent of the damage," says Avouac, Caltech's Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology. "As it turns out, there was little damage to the regular dwellings, and thankfully, as a result, there were far fewer deaths than I originally anticipated."
Using data from the GPS stations, an accelerometer that measures ground motion in Kathmandu, data from seismological stations around the world, and radar images collected by orbiting satellites, an international team of scientists led by Caltech has pieced together the first complete account of what physically happened during the Gorkha earthquake—a picture that explains how the large earthquake wound up leaving the majority of low-story buildings unscathed while devastating some treasured taller structures.
The findings are described in two papers that now appear online. The first, in the journal Nature Geoscience, is based on an analysis of seismological records collected more than 1,000 kilometers from the epicenter and places the event in the context of what scientists knew of the seismic setting near Gorkha before the earthquake. The second paper, appearing in ScienceExpress, goes into finer detail about the rupture process during the April 25 earthquake and how it shook the ground in Kathmandu.
Build Up and Release of Strain on Himalaya Megathrust(caption and credit in video attached in upper right)
In the first study, the researchers show that the earthquake occurred on the Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT), the main megathrust fault along which northern India is pushing beneath Eurasia at a rate of about two centimeters per year, driving the Himalayas upward. Based on GPS measurements, scientists know that a large portion of this fault is "locked." Large earthquakes typically release stress on such locked faults—as the lower tectonic plate (here, the Indian plate) pulls the upper plate (here, the Eurasian plate) downward, strain builds in these locked sections until the upper plate breaks free, releasing strain and producing an earthquake. There are areas along the fault in western Nepal that are known to be locked and have not experienced a major earthquake since a big one (larger than magnitude 8.5) in 1505. But the Gorkha earthquake ruptured only a small fraction of the locked zone, so there is still the potential for the locked portion to produce a large earthquake.
"The Gorkha earthquake didn't do the job of transferring deformation all the way to the front of the Himalaya," says Avouac. "So the Himalaya could certainly generate larger earthquakes in the future, but we have no idea when."
The epicenter of the April 25 event was located in the Gorkha District of Nepal, 75 kilometers to the west-northwest of Kathmandu, and propagated eastward at a rate of about 2.8 kilometers per second, causing slip in the north-south direction—a progression that the researchers describe as "unzipping" a section of the locked fault.
"With the geological context in Nepal, this is a place where we expect big earthquakes. We also knew, based on GPS measurements of the way the plates have moved over the last two decades, how 'stuck' this particular fault was, so this earthquake was not a surprise," says Jean Paul Ampuero, assistant professor of seismology at Caltech and coauthor on the Nature Geoscience paper. "But with every earthquake there are always surprises."
Propagation of April 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha Earthquake(caption and credit in video attached in upper right)
In this case, one of the surprises was that the quake did not rupture all the way to the surface. Records of past earthquakes on the same fault—including a powerful one (possibly as strong as magnitude 8.4) that shook Kathmandu in 1934—indicate that ruptures have previously reached the surface. But Avouac, Ampuero, and their colleagues used satellite Synthetic Aperture Radar data and a technique called back projection that takes advantage of the dense arrays of seismic stations in the United States, Europe, and Australia to track the progression of the earthquake, and found that it was quite contained at depth. The high-frequency waves that were largely produced in the lower section of the rupture occurred at a depth of about 15 kilometers.
"That was good news for Kathmandu," says Ampuero. "If the earthquake had broken all the way to the surface, it could have been much, much worse."
The researchers note, however, that the Gorkha earthquake did increase the stress on the adjacent portion of the fault that remains locked, closer to Kathmandu. It is unclear whether this additional stress will eventually trigger another earthquake or if that portion of the fault will "creep," a process that allows the two plates to move slowly past one another, dissipating stress. The researchers are building computer models and monitoring post-earthquake deformation of the crust to try to determine which scenario is more likely.
Another surprise from the earthquake, one that explains why many of the homes and other buildings in Kathmandu were spared, is described in the Science Express paper. Avouac and his colleagues found that for such a large-magnitude earthquake, high-frequency shaking in Kathmandu was actually relatively mild. And it is high-frequency waves, with short periods of vibration of less than one second, that tend to affect low-story buildings. The Nature Geoscience paper showed that the high-frequency waves that the quake produced came from the deeper edge of the rupture, on the northern end away from Kathmandu.
The GPS records described in the ScienceExpress paper show that within the zone that experienced the greatest amount of slip during the earthquake—a region south of the sources of high-frequency waves and closer to Kathmandu—the onset of slip on the fault was actually very smooth. It took nearly two seconds for the slip rate to reach its maximum value of one meter per second. In general, the more abrupt the onset of slip during an earthquake, the more energetic the radiated high-frequency seismic waves. So the relatively gradual onset of slip in the Gorkha event explains why this patch, which experienced a large amount of slip, did not generate many high-frequency waves.
"It would be good news if the smooth onset of slip, and hence the limited induced shaking, were a systematic property of the Himalayan megathrust fault, or of megathrust faults in general." says Avouac. "Based on observations from this and other megathrust earthquakes, this is a possibility."
In contrast to what they saw with high-frequency waves, the researchers found that the earthquake produced an unexpectedly large amount of low-frequency waves with longer periods of about five seconds. This longer-period shaking was responsible for the collapse of taller structures in Kathmandu, such as the Dharahara Tower, a 60-meter-high tower that survived larger earthquakes in 1833 and 1934 but collapsed completely during the Gorkha quake.
To understand this, consider plucking the strings of a guitar. Each string resonates at a certain natural frequency, or pitch, depending on the length, composition, and tension of the string. Likewise, buildings and other structures have a natural pitch or frequency of shaking at which they resonate; in general, the taller the building, the longer the period at which it resonates. If a strong earthquake causes the ground to shake with a frequency that matches a building's pitch, the shaking will be amplified within the building, and the structure will likely collapse.
Turning to the GPS records from two of Avouac's stations in the Kathmandu Valley, the researchers found that the effect of the low-frequency waves was amplified by the geological context of the Kathmandu basin. The basin is an ancient lakebed that is now filled with relatively soft sediment. For about 40 seconds after the earthquake, seismic waves from the quake were trapped within the basin and continued to reverberate, ringing like a bell with a frequency of five seconds.
"That's just the right frequency to damage tall buildings like the Dharahara Tower because it's close to their natural period," Avouac explains.
In follow-up work, Domniki Asimaki, professor of mechanical and civil engineering at Caltech, is examining the details of the shaking experienced throughout the basin. On a recent trip to Kathmandu, she documented very little damage to low-story buildings throughout much of the city but identified a pattern of intense shaking experienced at the edges of the basin, on hilltops or in the foothills where sediment meets the mountains. This was largely due to the resonance of seismic waves within the basin.
Asimaki notes that Los Angeles is also built atop sedimentary deposits and is surrounded by hills and mountain ranges that would also be prone to this type of increased shaking intensity during a major earthquake.
"In fact," she says, "the buildings in downtown Los Angeles are much taller than those in Kathmandu and therefore resonate with a much lower frequency. So if the same shaking had happened in L.A., a lot of the really tall buildings would have been challenged."
That points to one of the reasons it is important to understand how the land responded to the Gorkha earthquake, Avouac says. "Such studies of the site effects in Nepal provide an important opportunity to validate the codes and methods we use to predict the kind of shaking and damage that would be expected as a result of earthquakes elsewhere, such as in the Los Angeles Basin."
The Nepal Geodetic Array was funded by Caltech, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Additional funding for the Science study came from the Department of Foreign International Development (UK), the Royal Society (UK), the United Nations Development Programme, and the Nepal Academy for Science and Technology, as well as NASA and the Department of Foreign International Development.
On August 16 of last year, Mark Simons, a professor of geophysics at Caltech, landed in Reykjavik with 15 students and two other faculty members to begin leading a tour of the volcanic, tectonic, and glaciological highlights of Iceland. That same day, a swarm of earthquakes began shaking the island nation—seismicity that was related to one of Iceland's many volcanoes, Bárðarbunga caldera, which lies beneath Vatnajökull ice cap.
As the trip proceeded, it became clear to scientists studying the event that magma beneath the caldera was feeding a dyke, a vertical sheet of magma slicing through the crust in a northeasterly direction. On August 29, as the Caltech group departed Iceland, the dike triggered an eruption in a lava field called Holuhraun, about 40 kilometers (roughly 25 miles) from the caldera just beyond the northern limit of the ice cap.
Although the timing of the volcanic activity necessitated some shuffling of the trip's activities, such as canceling planned overnight visits near what was soon to become the eruption zone, it was also scientifically fortuitous. Simons is one of the leaders of a Caltech/JPL project known as the Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) program, which aims to use a growing constellation of international imaging radar satellites that will improve situational awareness, and thus response, following natural disasters. Under the ARIA umbrella, Caltech and JPL/NASA had already formed a collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to use its COSMO-SkyMed (CSK) constellation (consisting of four orbiting X-Band radar satellites) following such events.
Through the ASI/ARIA collaboration, the managers of CSK agreed to target the activity at Bárðarbunga for imaging using a technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). As two CSK satellites flew over, separated by just one day, they bounced signals off the ground to create images of the surface of the glacier above the caldera. By comparing those two images in what is called an interferogram, the scientists could see how the glacier surface had moved during that intervening day. By the evening of August 28, Simons was able to pull up that first interferogram on his cell phone. It showed that the ice above the caldera was subsiding at a rate of 50 centimeters (more than a foot and a half) a day—a clear indication that the magma chamber below Bárðarbunga caldera was deflating.
The next morning, before his return flight to the United States, Simons took the data to researchers at the University of Iceland who were tracking Bárðarbunga's activity.
"At that point, there had been no recognition that the caldera was collapsing. Naturally, they were focused on the dyke and all the earthquakes to the north," says Simons. "Our goal was just to let them know about the activity at the caldera because we were really worried about the possibility of triggering a subglacial melt event that would generate a catastrophic flood."
Luckily, that flood never happened, but the researchers at the University of Iceland did ramp up observations of the caldera with radar altimetry flights and installed a continuous GPS station on the ice overlying the center of the caldera.
Last December, Icelandic researchers published a paper in Nature about the Bárðarbunga event, largely focusing on the dyke and eruption. Now, completing the picture, Simons and his colleagues have developed a model to describe the collapsing caldera and the earthquakes produced by that action. The new findings appear in the journal Geophysical Journal International.
"Over a span of two months, there were more than 50 magnitude-5 earthquakes in this area. But they didn't look like regular faulting—like shearing a crack," says Simons. "Instead, the earthquakes looked like they resulted from movement inward along a vertical axis and horizontally outward in a radial direction—like an aluminum can when it's being crushed."
To try to determine what was actually generating the unusual earthquakes, Bryan Riel, a graduate student in Simons's group and lead author on the paper, used the original one-day interferogram of the Bárðarbunga area along with four others collected by CSK in September and October. Most of those one-day pairs spanned at least one of the earthquakes, but in a couple of cases, they did not. That allowed Riel to isolate the effect of the earthquakes and determine that most of the subsidence of the ice was due to what is called aseismic activity—the kind that does not produce big earthquakes. Thus, Riel was able to show that the earthquakes were not the primary cause of the surface deformation inferred from the satellite radar data.
"What we know for sure is that the magma chamber was deflating as the magma was feeding the dyke going northward," says Riel. "We have come up with two different models to explain what was actually generating the earthquakes."
In the first scenario, because the magma chamber deflated, pressure from the overlying rock and ice caused the caldera to collapse, producing the unusual earthquakes. This mechanism has been observed in cases of collapsing mines (e.g., the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah).
The second model hypothesizes that there is a ring fault arcing around a significant portion of the caldera. As the magma chamber deflated, the large block of rock above it dropped but periodically got stuck on portions of the ring fault. As the block became unstuck, it caused rapid slip on the curved fault, producing the unusual earthquakes.
"Because we had access to these satellite images as well as GPS data, we have been able to produce two potential interpretations for the collapse of a caldera—a rare event that occurs maybe once every 50 to 100 years," says Simons. "To be able to see this documented as it's happening is truly phenomenal."
Additional authors on the paper, "The collapse of Bárðarbunga caldera, Iceland," are Hiroo Kanamori, John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, at Caltech; Pietro Milillo of the University of Basilicata in Potenza, Italy; Paul Lundgren of JPL; and Sergey Samsonov of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation. The work was supported by a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship and by the Caltech/JPL President's and Director's Fund.
A team of researchers from Caltech and the China Earthquake Administration has discovered an ancient, deep canyon buried along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in south Tibet, north of the eastern end of the Himalayas. The geologists say that the ancient canyon—thousands of feet deep in places—effectively rules out a popular model used to explain how the massive and picturesque gorges of the Himalayas became so steep, so fast.
"I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet," says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. "When I first saw the data, I said, 'Wow!' It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion."
Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics—the study of the earth's surface and the way it changes—can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land—helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.
"In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift," Avouac says. "In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It's a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving."
The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.
Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac's group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.
Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.
To establish when the river switched from incising bedrock to depositing sediments, they measured two isotopes, beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, in the lowest sediment layer. The isotopes are produced when rocks and sediment are exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and decay at different rates once buried, and so allowed the geologists to determine that the paleocanyon started to fill with sediment about 2.5 million years ago.
The researchers' reconstruction of the former valley floor showed that the slope of the river once increased gradually from the Gangetic Plain to the Tibetan Plateau, with no sudden changes, or knickpoints. Today, the river, like most others in the area, has a steep knickpoint where it meets the Himalayas, at a place known as the Namche Barwa massif. There, the uplift of the mountains is extremely rapid (on the order of 1 centimeter per year, whereas in other areas 5 millimeters per year is more typical) and the river drops by 2 kilometers in elevation as it flows through the famous Tsangpo Gorge, known by some as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon because it is so deep and long.
Combining the depth and age of the paleocanyon with the geometry of the valley, the geologists surmised that the river existed in this location prior to about 3 million years ago, but at that time, it was not affected by the Himalayas. However, as the Indian and Eurasian plates continued to collide and the mountain range pushed northward, it began impinging on the river. Suddenly, about 2.5 million years ago, a rapidly uplifting section of the mountain range got in the river's way, damming it, and the canyon subsequently filled with sediment.
"This is the time when the Namche Barwa massif started to rise, and the gorge developed," says Scherler, one of two lead authors on the paper and now at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.
That picture of the river and the Tibetan Plateau, which involves the river incising deeply into the plateau millions of years ago, differs quite a bit from the typically accepted geologic vision. Typically, geologists believe that when rivers start to incise into a plateau, they eat at the edges, slowly making their way into the plateau over time. However, the rivers flowing across the Himalayas all have strong knickpoints and have not incised much at all into the Tibetan Plateau. Therefore, the thought has been that the rapid uplift of the Himalayas has pushed the rivers back, effectively pinning them, so that they have not been able to make their way into the plateau. But that explanation does not work with the newly discovered paleocanyon.
The team's new hypothesis also rules out a model that has been around for about 15 years, called tectonic aneurysm, which suggests that the rapid uplift seen at the Namche Barwa massif was triggered by intense river incision. In tectonic aneurysm, a river cuts down through the earth's crust so fast that it causes the crust to heat up, making a nearby mountain range weaker and facilitating uplift.
The model is popular among geologists, and indeed Avouac himself published a modeling paper in 1996 that showed the viability of the mechanism. "But now we have discovered that the river was able to cut into the plateau way before the uplift happened," Avouac says, "and this shows that the tectonic aneurysm model was actually not at work here. The rapid uplift is not a response to river incision."
The other lead author on the paper, "Tectonic control of Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge revealed by a buried canyon in Southern Tibet," is Ping Wang of the State Key Laboratory of Earthquake Dynamics, in Beijing, China. Additional authors include Jürgen Mey, of the University of Potsdam, in Germany; and Yunda Zhang and Dingguo Shi of the Chengdu Engineering Corporation, in China. The work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the State Key Laboratory for Earthquake Dynamics, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
Two and a half billion years ago, single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria harnessed sunlight to split water molecules, producing energy to power their cells and releasing oxygen into an atmosphere that had previously had none. These early environmental engineers are responsible for the life we see around us today, and much more besides.
A: I'm a geobiologist of the historical variety. I'm trying to understand both how the earth works, and why it works that way. The whys are hard, because you can't redo this planetary experiment. You have to create clever ways to work backward from what you can observe to answer the question you've posed.
When you boil down the earth's history, there are maybe a half-dozen singularities—fundamental changes in how our planet and the life on it interact. Photosynthetic cyanobacteria reengineered the planet. Photosynthesis led to two more singularities—plants and animals appeared. The remaining singularities are mass extinctions as a result of something happening to the global environment, and photosynthesis likely caused one of those as well. Oxygen can be highly toxic because it's so reactive. It chews up your DNA, and it binds to the metal compounds that cells use to shuttle electrons around. Any microbes that couldn't cope with this new pollutant died off, or were forced to hide in oxygen-depleted environments.
Atmospheric oxygen resulted from a change to a microbe's metabolism that evolved once, at a specific time in the earth's history. We want to know why that happened. What were those bacteria doing beforehand? What forced them to develop this radically new way of making a living?
Bacteria don't leave fossils, per se, but they can leave behind metabolic signatures that sedimentary rocks preserve. They impact the rock's elemental composition, and they alter the ratios between heavier and lighter isotopes of certain elements as well. We can work backward from that information to deduce what the bacteria were doing on the ocean floor and in the seawater above it as those sediments were being laid down.
Q: If the earth has had breathable oxygen for billions of years, why should we care where it came from?
A: There are two really good reasons.
One has to do with meeting society's energy demands. There's a tremendous effort at Caltech and elsewhere to develop "solar fuels." Can we do better than green plants? If cyanobacteria did the best they could under tight constraints, maybe not. But if there are a variety of ways to do that chemistry, maybe we can clear the slate and do something entirely different.
The deeper reason is that atmospheric oxygen rewrote life's recipe book. Oxygen-based metabolism provides extra energy that can be invested in cellular specialization. A group of specialized cells can become a tissue, and eventually you have complex creatures with limbs. It's like agriculture—when you start growing crops, you have surplus food. Villages spring up. Craftsmen appear.
It gets to the Big Question—how rare are we? The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the oldest evidence for life is about 3.5 billion years old. It took another billion years until photosynthesis, and two billion more for animals to develop. Is it possible to evolve advanced creatures under a different set of constraints leading to completely different metabolisms? If we're looking for life on worlds that play by different rules, will we recognize it?
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: As a small kid, I always loved science. That disappeared somewhere in middle school, so I went to Colorado College in Colorado Springs—a small, liberal-arts school with a really intense curriculum called the block plan. You take one class at a time for a month. You're completely immersed—lecture from nine to twelve, break for lunch, afternoon labs, evening homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. I took a geology class on a whim, because my grandfather had once taught paleontology there. The class vanished into the mountains for a month, and I was hooked.
In graduate school at Harvard, I worked with Andy Knoll, a Precambrian paleontologist who's trying to understand what the world looked like before animals. Andy's primary appointment is actually in the biology department, and I built on my sedimentary-geology background with a lot of biology classes—molecular biology, biochemistry, genomics, comparative biology, evolutionary biology. And then I came here as an Agouron Postdoctoral Scholar in Geobiology in 2007. I was fortunate that they invited me to stay.
Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.
Scientists believe that until about 2.4 billion years ago there was little oxygen in the atmosphere—an idea that has important implications for the evolution of life on Earth. Evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from studies of sulfur isotopes preserved in the rock record. But the sulfur isotope story has been uncertain because of the lack of key information that has now been provided by a new analytical technique developed by a team of Caltech geologists and geochemists. The story that new information reveals, however, is not what most scientists had expected.
"Our new technique is 1,000 times more sensitive for making sulfur isotope measurements," says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at Caltech. "We used it to make measurements of sulfate groups dissolved in carbonate minerals deposited in the ocean more than 2.4 billion years ago, and those measurements show that we have been thinking about this part of the sulfur cycle and sulfur isotopes incorrectly."
The team describes their results in the November 7 issue of the journal Science. The lead author on the paper is Guillaume Paris, an assistant research scientist at Caltech.
Nearly 15 years ago, a team of geochemists led by researchers at UC San Diego discovered there was something peculiar about the sulfur isotope content of rocks from the Archean era, an interval that lasted from 3.8 billion to about 2.4 billion years ago. In those ancient rocks, the geologists were analyzing the abundances of stable isotopes of sulfur.
When sulfur is involved in a reaction—such as microbial sulfate reduction, a way for microbes to eat organic compounds in the absence of oxygen—its isotopes are usually fractionated, or separated, from one another in proportion to their differences in mass. That is, 34S gets fractionated from 32S about twice as much as 33S gets fractionated from 32S. This process is called mass-dependent fractionation, and, scientists have found that it dominates in virtually all sulfur processes operating on Earth's surface for the last 2.4 billion years.
However, in older rocks from the Archean era (i.e., older than 2.4 billion years), the relative abundances of sulfur isotopes do not follow the same mass-related pattern, but instead show relative enrichments or deficiencies of 33S relative to 34S. They are said to be the product of mass-independent fractionation (MIF).
The widely accepted explanation for the occurrence of MIF is as follows. Billions of years ago, volcanism was extremely active on Earth, and all those volcanoes spewed sulfur dioxide high into the atmosphere. At that time, oxygen existed at very low levels in the atmosphere, and therefore ozone, which is produced when ultraviolet radiation strikes oxygen, was also lacking. Today, ozone prevents ultraviolet light from reaching sulfur dioxide with the energy needed to fractionate sulfur, but on the early Earth, that was not the case, and MIF is the result. Researchers have been able to reproduce this effect in the lab by shining lasers onto sulfur dioxide and producing MIF.
Geologists have also measured the sulfur isotopic composition of sedimentary rocks dating to the Archean era, and found that sulfides—sulfur-bearing compounds such as pyrite (FeS2)—include more 33S than would be expected based on normal mass-dependent processes. But if those minerals are enriched in 33S, other minerals must be correspondingly lacking in the isotope. According to the leading hypothesis, those 33S-deficient minerals should be sulfates—oxidized sulfur-bearing compounds—that were deposited in the Archean ocean.
"That idea was put forward on the basis of experiment. To test the hypothesis, you'd need to check the isotope ratios in sulfate salts (minerals such as gypsum), but those don't really exist in the Archean rock record since there was very little oxygen around," explains Woody Fischer, professor of geobiology at Caltech and a coauthor on the new paper. "But there are trace amounts of sulfate that got trapped in carbonate minerals in seawater."
However, because those sulfates are present in such small amounts, no one has been able to measure well their isotopic composition. But using a device known as a multicollector inductively-coupled mass spectrometer to precisely measure multiple sulfur isotopes, Adkins and his colleague Alex Sessions, a professor of geobiology, developed a method that is sensitive enough to measure the isotopic composition of about 10 nanomoles of sulfate in just a few tens of milligrams of carbonate material.
The authors used the method to measure the sulfate content of carbonates from an ancient carbonate platform preserved in present-day South Africa, an ancient version of the depositional environments found in the Bahamas today. Analyzing the samples, which spanned 70 million years and a variety of marine environments, the researchers found exactly the opposite of what had been predicted: the sulfates were actually enriched by 33S rather than lacking in it.
"Now, finally, we're looking at this sulfur cycle and the sulfur isotopes correctly," Adkins says.
What does this mean for the atmospheric conditions of the early Earth? "Our findings underscore that the oxygen concentrations in the early atmosphere could have been incredibly low," Fischer says.
Knowledge of sulfate isotopes changes how we understand the role of biology in the sulfur cycle, he adds. Indeed, the fact that the sulfates from this time period have the same isotopic composition as sulfide minerals suggests that the sulfides may be the product of microbial processes that reduced seawater sulfate to sulfide (which later precipitated in sediments in the form of pyrite). Previously, scientists thought that all of the isotope fractionation could be explained by inorganic processes alone.
In a second paper also in the November 7 issue of Science, Paris, Adkins, Sessions, and colleagues from a number of institutions around the world report on related work in which they measured the sulfates in Indonesia's Lake Matano, a low-sulfate analog of the Archean ocean.
At about 100 meters depth, the bacterial communities in Lake Matano begin consuming sulfate rather than oxygen, as do most microbial communities, yielding sulfide. The researchers measured the sulfur isotopes within the sulfates and sulfides in the lake water and sediments and found that despite the low concentrations of sulfate, a lot of mass-dependent fractionation was taking place. The researchers used the data to build a model of the lake's sulfur cycle that could produce the measured fractionation, and when they applied their model to constrain the range of concentrations of sulfate in the Archean ocean, they found that the concentration was likely less than 2.5 micromolar, 10,000 times lower than the modern ocean.
"At such low concentration, all the isotopic variability starts to fit," says Adkins. "With these two papers, we were able to come at the same problem in two ways—by measuring the rocks dating from the Archean and by looking at a model system today that doesn't have much sulfate—and they point toward the same answer: the sulfate concentration was very low in the Archean ocean."
Samuel M. Webb of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource is also an author on the paper, "Neoarchean carbonate-associated sulfate records positive Δ33S anomalies." The work was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, the Henry and Camille Dreyfus Foundation's Postdoctoral Program in Environmental Chemistry, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
Paris is also a co-lead author on the second paper, "Sulfate was a trace constituent of Archean seawater." Additional authors on that paper are Sean Crowe and CarriAyne Jones of the University of British Columbia and the University of Southern Denmark; Sergei Katsev of the University of Minnesota Duluth; Sang-Tae Kim of McMaster University; Aubrey Zerkle of the University of St. Andrews; Sulung Nomosatryo of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences; David Fowle of the University of Kansas; James Farquhar of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Donald Canfield of the University of Southern Denmark. Funding was provided by an Agouron Institute Geobiology Fellowship and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship, as well as by the Danish National Research Foundation and the European Research Council.