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10.5: Proterozoic Eon

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    The Proterozoic Eon, meaning “earlier life,” is the eon of time after the Archean eon and ranges from 2.5 billion years old to 541 million years old. During this time, most of the central parts of the continents had formed and the plate tectonic process had started. Photosynthesis (in organisms like stromatolites) had already been adding oxygen slowly to the atmosphere, but it was quickly absorbed in minerals. Evolutionary advancements in multicellular cyanobacteria completely transformed the atmosphere by adding free oxygen gas (O2) and causing the decimation of the anaerobic (non-oxygen) bacteria that existed at the time [47]. This is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. In an oxygenated world, organisms could thrive in ways they could not earlier. Oxygen also changed the chemistry of the planet in significant ways. For example, iron can be carried in solution in a non-oxygenated environment. However, when iron combines with free oxygen, it creates a solid precipitate to make minerals like hematite (iron oxide). This is the reason large deposits of iron known as banded iron formations are common during this time, ending around 2 billion years ago [48].

    Water and carbon dioxide go into plants, making sugar and oxygen.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Diagram showing the main products and reactants in photosynthesis. The one product that is not shown is sugar, which is the chemical energy that goes into constructing the plant, and the energy that is stored in the plant which is used later by the plant or by animals that consume the plant.

    The formation of the banded iron lasted a long time and prevented the oxygen level from increasing significantly in the oceans since the rocks literally took the oxygen out of the water and formed alternating layers of iron-oxide minerals and red chert. Eventually, as oxygen continued to be made, absorption of oxygen in mineral precipitation leveled off, and dissolved oxygen gas started filling the oceans and eventually bubbling out into the atmosphere. Oxygenation of the atmosphere is the single biggest event that distinguishes the Archean Earth and the Proterozoic Earth [49]. In addition to changing mineral and ocean chemistry, this event is also tabbed as the likely cause of Earth’s first glaciation, the Huron Glaciation that occurred around 2.1 billion years ago [50]. Free oxygen reacted with methane in the atmosphere, turning it into carbon dioxide. Methane is a more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and as CO2 increased in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect actually decreased, thus cooling the planet.

    The rock shows red and brown layering.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Alternating bands of iron-rich and silica-rich mud, formed as oxygen combined with dissolved iron.


    By the Proterozoic eon, lithospheric plates had formed and started moving according to plate tectonic motions similar to today. As these plates formed and started moving, eventually a supercontinent formed from collisions as the ocean basins closed. The exact number of supercontinents during the Proterozoic (or earlier) is unknown, but Rodinia is the best understood. It formed about 1 billion years ago and broke up at the end of the Proterozoic, about 750-600 million years ago. Laurentia, the name for the continental mass that became North America, most likely was in the center of Rodinia. The reconstruction of Rodinia has been accomplished matching and aligning ancient mountain chains to assemble the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, and paleomagnetic to orient them with respect to magnetic north.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): One possible reconstruction of Rodinia 1.1 billion years ago. Source: John Goodge, modified from Dalziel (1997).

    As examples of the complexity of the issue and disagreements among geologists over the reconstructions, there are at least six different models of what broke away from Laurentia in the Panthallasa Ocean (early Pacific), including Australia, Antarctica [53], parts of China, the Tarim craton north of the Himalaya [54], Siberia [55], or the Kalahari craton of eastern Africa [56]. Regardless of the exact details, it was this breakup that created lots of biologically-favorable shallow water environments that fostered the evolutionary breakthroughs that mark the start of the next eon, the Phanerozoic.

    Life Evolves

    Early life in the Archean and earlier is poorly documented in the fossil record, but chemical evidence and evolutionary theory state that this life would have been single-celled photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria in stromatolites. Fossil cyanobacteria in these stromatolites produced free oxygen in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria are prokaryotes, i.e. single-celled organisms (archaea and bacteria) with simple cells that lack a cell nucleus and other organelles.

    Picture of modern cyanobacteria (as stromatolites) in Shark Bay, Australia. The brown, blobby stromatolites are slightly sticking out of the shallow water of the ocean.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Modern cyanobacteria (as stromatolites) in Shark Bay, Australia.

    However, during the Proterozoic, a large evolutionary step occurred with the appearance of eukaryotes. Evolving around 2.1-1.6 billion years ago, eukaryotic cells are more complex with cell organelles and a nucleus with more complex DNA replication and regulation, mitochondria for additional energy, and chloroplasts to perform photosynthesis and produce energy. Certain organelles even have their own DNA, like mitochondria. Eukaryotes are the branch of the tree of life that gave rise to fungi, plants, and animals. About 1.2 billion years ago, another important event in Earth’s biological history occurred when some eukaryotes invented sex [59]. By sharing genetic material between reproducing individuals (male and female), evolutionary change was enhanced by increasing genetic variability. This allowed more complexity among individual organisms, and eventually, ecosystems.

    Round structures of grey limestone are remnants of the blobby nature of the living stromatolites, fossilized in rock.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Fossil stromatolites in Saratoga Springs, New York.

    It is important to realize that the Proterozoic land surfaces were barren, at least of plants like grasses, trees, and animals. Geologic processes were active just like today, but the application of the Uniformity Principle requires the realization of differences in the environments in which the processes operate. For example, rain and rivers were present but erosion on barren land surfaces would have operated at different rates than on modern land surfaces protected by plants.

    The fossil is a flat, leaf-shaped
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Dickinsonia, a typical Ediacaran fossil.

    The Ediacaran fauna (635.5-541 million years ago, [60]) offers the first glimpse at these evolving ecosystems toward the end of the Proterozoic. These organisms were among the first multicellular life forms and may have been similar to soft jellyfish or worm-like organisms [61; 62]. Since the Ediacaran fauna did not have hard parts like shells, they are not well preserved in Proterozoic rocks. However, studies suggest that they were widespread around the earth [63]. Scientists still debate how many of these are extinct evolutionary dead-ends or the ancestors to modern biological groups [61]. The transition of life from the soft-bodied Ediacaran forms to the explosion of forms with hard parts at the end of the Proterozoic and beginning of the Phanerozoic made a dramatic difference in our ability to understand earth history and the history of life.


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    48. Cloud P (1973) Paleoecological significance of the banded iron-formation. Econ Geol 68:1135–1143

    49. Planavsky NJ, Asael D, Hofman A, et al (2014) Evidence for oxygenic photosynthesis half a billion years before the Great Oxidation Event. Nat Geosci 7:283–286

    50. Rasmussen B, Bekker A, Fletcher IR (2013) Correlation of Paleoproterozoic glaciations based on U–Pb zircon ages for tuff beds in the Transvaal and Huronian Supergroups. Earth Planet Sci Lett 382:173–180

    53. Moores EM (1991) Southwest U.S.-East Antarctic (SWEAT) connection: A hypothesis. Geology 19:425–428

    54. Wen B, Evans DAD, Li Y-X (2017) Neoproterozoic paleogeography of the Tarim Block: An extended or alternative “missing-link” model for Rodinia? Earth Planet Sci Lett 458:92–106

    55. Sears JW, Price RA (2000) New look at the Siberian connection: No SWEAT. Geology 28:423–42

    56. Scotese CR (2009) Late Proterozoic plate tectonics and palaeogeography: a tale of two supercontinents, Rodinia and Pannotia. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 326:67–83

    59. Sampson SD (2009) Dinosaur odyssey: Fossil threads in the web of life. University of California Press

    60. Knoll AH, Walter MR, Narbonne GM, Christie-Blick N (2004) A new period for the geologic time scale. Science 305:621–622

    61. McMenamin MAS (1986) The Garden of Ediacara. Palaios 1:178–182

    62. McMenamin MA, Schulte McMenamin DL (1990) The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough. Columbia University Press

    63. Smith EF, Nelson LL, Strange MA, et al (2016) The end of the Ediacaran: Two new exceptionally preserved body fossil assemblages from Mount Dunfee, Nevada, USA. Geology 44:911–914

    10.5: Proterozoic Eon is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Chris Johnson, Matthew D. Affolter, Paul Inkenbrandt, & Cam Mosher.