Cyanobacterial evolution during the Precambrian

B.E. Schirrmeister, P. Sanchez-Baracaldo, Dave Wacey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


© 2016 Cambridge University Press.Life on Earth has existed for at least 3.5 billion years. Yet, relatively little is known of its evolution during the first two billion years, due to the scarceness and generally poor preservation of fossilized biological material. Cyanobacteria, formerly known as blue green algae were among the first crown Eubacteria to evolve and for more than 2.5 billion years they have strongly influenced Earth's biosphere. Being the only organism where oxygenic photosynthesis has originated, they have oxygenated Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere, triggered the evolution of plants-being ancestral to chloroplasts-and enabled the evolution of complex life based on aerobic respiration. Having such a strong impact on early life, one might expect that the evolutionary success of this group may also have triggered further biosphere changes during early Earth history. However, very little is known about the early evolution of this phylum and ongoing debates about cyanobacterial fossils, biomarkers and molecular clock analyses highlight the difficulties in this field of research. Although phylogenomic analyses have provided promising glimpses into the early evolution of cyanobacteria, estimated divergence ages are often very uncertain, because of vague and insufficient tree-calibrations. Results of molecular clock analyses are intrinsically tied to these prior calibration points, hence improving calibrations will enable more precise divergence time estimations. Here we provide a review of previously described Precambrian microfossils, biomarkers and geochemical markers that inform upon the early evolution of cyanobacteria. Future research in micropalaeontology will require novel analyses and imaging techniques to improve taxonomic affiliation of many Precambrian microfossils. Consequently, a better understanding of early cyanobacterial evolution will not only allow for a more specific calibration of cyanobacterial and eubacterial phylogenies, but also provide new dates for the tree of life.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-204
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number3
Early online date29 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016


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