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Open Access item A possible nitrogen crisis for Archaean life due to reduced nitrogen fixation by lightning

Authors:Navarro-González, Rafael
McKay, Christopher P.
Nna Mvondo, Delphine
Keywords:Nitrogen fixation, Nitric oxide production, Abiotic sources, Lightnings, Primitive atmospheres, Hadean period, Archaean period
Issue Date:5-Jul-2001
Publisher:Nature Publishing Group
Citation:Nature 412: 61-64 (2001)
Abstract:Nitrogen is an essential element for life and is often the limiting nutrient for terrestrial ecosystems. As most nitrogen is locked in the kinetically stable form, N2, in the Earth's atmosphere, processes that can fix N2 into biologically available forms —such as nitrate and ammonia— control the supply of nitrogen for organisms. On the early Earth, nitrogen is thought to have been fixed abiotically, as nitric oxide formed during lightning discharge. The advent of biological nitrogen fixation suggests that at some point the demand for fixed nitrogen exceeded the supply from abiotic sources, but the timing and causes of the onset of biological nitrogen fixation remain unclear. Here we report an experimental simulation of nitrogen fixation by lightning over a range of Hadean (4.5–3.8 Gyr ago) and Archaean (3.8–2.5 Gyr ago) atmospheric compositions, from predominantly carbon dioxide to predominantly dinitrogen (but always without oxygen). We infer that, as atmospheric CO2 decreased over the Archaean period, the production of nitric oxide from lightning discharge decreased by two orders of magnitude until about 2.2 Gyr. After this time, the rise in oxygen (or methane) concentrations probably initiated other abiotic sources of nitrogen. Although the temporary reduction in nitric oxide production may have lasted for only 100 Myr or less, this was potentially long enough to cause an ecological crisis that triggered the development of biological nitrogen fixation.
Description:4 pages, 2 figures.-- PMID: 11452304 [PubMed].
Publisher version (URL):http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/35083537
Appears in Collections:(CAB) Comunicaciones congresos

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