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The Janus face of iron on anoxic worlds: iron oxides are both protective and destructive to life on the early Earth and present-day Mars

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Original languageEnglish
JournalFEMS Microbiology Ecology
Volume93
Issue number5
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017

Abstract

The surface of the early Earth was probably subjected to a higher flux of ultraviolet (UV) radiation than today. UV radiation is known to severely damage DNA and other key molecules of life. Using a liquid culture and a rock analogue system, we investigated the interplay of protective and deleterious effects of iron oxides under UV radiation on the viability of the model organism, Bacillus subtilis. In the presence of hydrogen peroxide, there exists a fine balance between iron oxide's protective effects against this radiation and its deleterious effects caused by Photo-Fenton reactions. The maximum damage was caused by a concentration of hematite of ∼1 mg/mL. Concentrations above this confer increasing protection by physical blockage of the UV radiation, concentrations below this cause less effective UV radiation blockage, but also a correspondingly less effective Photo-Fenton reaction, providing an overall advantage. These results show that on anoxic worlds, surface habitability under a high UV flux leaves life precariously poised between the beneficial and deleterious effects of iron oxides. These results have relevance to the Archean Earth, but also the habitability of the Martian surface, where high levels of UV radiation in combination with iron oxides and hydrogen peroxide can be found.

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