The oldest and most wide-ranging signal of biological activity (biosignature) on our planet is the carbon isotope composition of organic materials preserved in rocks. These biosignatures preserve the long-term evolution of the microorganism-hosted metabolic machinery responsible for producing deviations in the isotopic compositions of inorganic and organic carbon. Despite billions of years of ecosystem turnover, evolutionary innovation, organismic complexification, and geological events, the organic carbon that is a residuum of the global marine biosphere in the rock record tells an essentially static story. The ~25‰ mean deviation between inorganic and organic 13C/12C values has remained remarkably unchanged over >3.5 billion years. The bulk of this record is conventionally attributed to early-evolved, RuBisCO-mediated CO2 fixation that, in extant oxygenic phototrophs, produces comparable isotopic effects and dominates modern primary production. However, billions of years of environmental transition, for example, in the progressive oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere, would be expected to have accompanied shifts in the predominant RuBisCO forms as well as enzyme-level adaptive responses in RuBisCO CO2-specificity. These factors would also be expected to result in preserved isotopic signatures deviating from those produced by extant RuBisCO in oxygenic phototrophs. Why does the bulk carbon isotope record not reflect these expected environmental transitions and evolutionary innovations? Here, we discuss this apparent discrepancy and highlight the need for greater quantitative understanding of carbon isotope fractionation behavior in extant metabolic pathways. We propose novel, laboratory-based approaches to reconstructing ancestral states of carbon metabolisms and associated enzymes that can constrain isotopic biosignature production in ancient biological systems. Together, these strategies are crucial for integrating the complementary toolsets of biological and geological sciences and for interpretation of the oldest record of life on Earth.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics