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Why did evolution stall during the 'boring billion'? - life - 01 May 2014 - New Scientist

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Why did evolution stall during the 'boring billion'?


01 May 2014 by Jeff Hecht
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LONG before evolution on Earth kicked in


with a vengeance, it seemed to stall
completely.
From 1.7 billion years ago, for a billion boring
years, Earth remained a slimy, near-static
world of algae and microbes. The pace
picked up 750 million years ago: glaciers
spread, complex animals appeared, and by
520 million years ago the Cambrian
revolution an explosion of varied life was
under way. The reason for that long stasis
has been a mystery.
Too hot to handle (Image: Frans Lanting/Corbis)
We may now have the answer: the gradual
cooling of the planet's interior. Just as
turning down a stove burner slows the boiling of a stew pot, cooling of the mantle allowed the
"scum" on top to thicken, says Peter Cawood at the University of St Andrews, UK. The resulting
surface stability slowed geological change, seemingly stalling evolution for a billion years, until the
planet was cool enough for tectonic activity to shift up a gear.
Cawood and Chris Hawkesworth, also at St Andrews, analysed studies of continental motions and
geologic processes to see how they lined up with the boring period.
About 1.8 billion years ago, the cores of modern North America, Baltic Europe and Siberia collided
and went on to form part of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which accounted for most of the
planet's land mass. They found that Rodinia was surprisingly stable, and that it stayed largely in
tropical and temperate zones before breaking up 750 million years ago (Geology, doi.org/sj7).
What caused such a long period of tectonic stability? Taras Gerya at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich reviewed studies that modelled Earth's early formation and found that the
process changed as the mantle cooled.
On the hot young Earth, the outer layer was too weak and soft for plate tectonics to operate until
the upper mantle cooled enough to allow sections of crust to slip under each other, or subduct, at
collision zones some 3.2 to 2.5 billion years ago. However, the mantle remained so hot that it
softened the subducting oceanic crust too much for it to pull large areas of continental crust down
behind it, as it does today. Only when the mantle cooled further did that modern-style subduction
start, about 750 million years ago. Rodinia was duly ripped apart and the boring billion ended
(Geology, doi.org/sjq).
Cawood and Hawkesworth also found more big differences between the boring billion and other
times. Major ice ages occurred before and after but not during the boring billion. Oxygen levels
were also stable during, but varied widely before and after.
Cawood says all these systems are linked. "The atmosphere, the oceans, and the crust of the
Earth were acting as a stable, interlinked system." The start of modern-style plate tectonics that
tore up Rodinia also brought other changes, and complex life evolved to meet the new challenges.
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5/4/14

Why did evolution stall during the 'boring billion'? - life - 01 May 2014 - New Scientist

Martin Brasier at the University of Oxford says the stable period may also have been vital for the
evolution of eukaryotic cells cells with a nucleus of genetic material. "I argue that the boring
billion was the anvil on which the eukaryote cell was forged. If so, then modern eukaryote cells
could be the product of geologically rare conditions."
This article appeared in print under the headline "Patient evolution's billion-year wait"

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