- © The Mineralogical Society Of America
It is the great challenge of geomicrobiology to study microorganisms in the context of their environments, both in Earth’s distant past and in the present. Planet Earth and its biosphere have evolved together, and a chronicle of Earth’s ecosystems and their geochemical cycles is recorded in sedimentary rocks spanning billions of years. A relatively new and very powerful approach to read these subtle microbial and environmental signatures in ancient rocks is the study of molecular fossils, or biomarkers, within the context of the biochemistry and phylogeny of their origins.
Biomarkers are organic compounds (primarily lipids) that have particular biosynthetic origins and can be preserved in sediments and sedimentary rocks. The most valuable biomarkers are taxonomically specific, i.e., they can be assigned to a defined group of organisms, and are resistant to degradation. Reading the biomarker signatures in rocks can give information about the ancient record of anoxic conditions in the water column (e.g., Summons and Powell 1986), the intensity of UV radiation penetrating lakes (Leavitt et al. 1997), hypersalinity in evaporitic environments (Grice et al. 1998), and the function of microbial communities at methane seeps (Hinrichs et al. 1999). Biomarkers have helped to reconstruct the first appearance of major groups of organisms (e.g., McCaffrey et al. 1994; Moldowan et al. 1994; Moldowan and Talyzina 1998; Brocks et al. 2005), elucidate events of global climate change (e.g., Brassell et al. 1986), record major perturbations and reorganization of geochemical cycles (e.g., Logan et al. 1995; Kuypers et al. 1999) and document catastrophic losses in biodiversity (e.g., Grice et al. 2005). They are even used as tools to help in the discovery of major new petroleum reservoirs (for a review see Peters et al. 2004). The field of biomarker research is young and many new applications wait to be …