What does chlorophyll leave behind after a billion years?

Scientists have identified one of the earliest multicellular algae. Their new method could help unlock much more information from Precambrian fossils.

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Marie Catherine Sforna and colleagues have discovered chlorophyll remnants in a microfossil from the Congo Basin. What makes this extraordinary is that the remnants are in situ in a billion-year-old fossil of Arctacellularia tetragonala, a multicellular algae. The discovery was made possible by a new technique, combining morphological, chemical, and ultrastructural analyses with synchrotron-based X-ray Fluorescence (SR-XRF) and X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (SR-XAS).

Chlorophyll is challenging to track in fossils, and it can easily break during burial or diagenesis – the physical and chemical process that is the first stage of fossil formation. They can be transformed into geoporphyrins, more stable chemical structures that retain features allowing palaeontologists to identify the source molecules. The presence of the right geoporphyrins in fossil material has allowed palaeontologists to recognise the existence of chlorophyll associated with fossils from a billion years ago. However, techniques haven’t allowed scientists to identify chlorophyll derivatives with specific individual fossils.

a Microphotograph of the studied specimens. bc Fe and Ni SR-μXRF maps obtained at SLS (pixel: 1.5 μm, 200 ms/px) showing the enrichment in Ni and Fe of the intracellular inclusions (ICI). Color scales correspond to normalized counts. Source: Sforna et al. 2022.

In addition, you need to have the right rock for your fossil. If your rock overheated during its maturation, the biomarkers you’re looking for will have broken down. The new technique solves both these problems, finding the necessary molecules even in overmature rocks. The key to unlocking the fossils was nickel enrichment in the condensed cytoplasm of cells. These nickel-geoporphyrins still contain the structure necessary to identify them as chlorophyll derivatives.

press release from the Early Life Traces & Evolution Laboratory (Astrobiology / Faculty of Science) at the University of Liège states: “This new methodology, applicable to billion-year-old supermature rocks, provides a new approach to understanding the evolution of eukaryotic phototrophy during the Precambrian and the diversification of primary producers in early ecosystems.”

In this case, the word ‘early’ means very early. Sforna and colleagues think their technique could possibly reach more than twice as far back into the past. In their paper, the authors write: “This approach offers the possibility to track porphyrins, and thus phototrophy, much further back in time, perhaps even into the Archean. Indeed, the ability of XANES to detect tetrapyrrole structures bound to insoluble organic matter reduces the risk of contamination and allows the assignment of bound porphyrin derivatives to individual microfossils.”


Sforna, M.C., Loron, C.C., Demoulin, C.F., François, C., Cornet, Y., Lara, Y.J., Grolimund, D., Ferreira Sanchez, D., Medjoubi, K., Somogyi, A., Addad, A., Fadel, A., Compère, P., Baudet, D., Brocks, J.J. and Javaux, E.J. (2022) “Intracellular bound chlorophyll residues identify 1 Gyr-old fossils as eukaryotic algae,” Nature Communicationshttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-27810-7

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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