Earth's biogeochemical cycle of carbon delivers both limestones and organic materials to the crust. In numerous, biologically catalysed redox reactions, hydrogen, sulphur, iron, and oxygen serve prominently as electron donors and acceptors. The progress of these reactions can be reconstructed from records of variations in the abundance of 13C in sedimentary carbonate minerals and organic materials. Because the crust is always receiving new CO2 from the mantle and a portion of it is being reduced by photoautotrophs, the carbon cycle has continuously released oxidizing power. Most of it is represented by Fe3+ that has accumulated in the crust or been returned to the mantle via subduction. Less than 3% of the estimated, integrated production of oxidizing power since 3.8 Gyr ago is represented by O2 in the atmosphere and dissolved in seawater. The balance is represented by sulphate. The accumulation of oxidizing power can be estimated from budgets summarizing inputs of mantle carbon and rates of organic-carbon burial, but levels of O2 are only weakly and indirectly coupled to those phenomena and thus to carbon-isotopic records. Elevated abundances of 13C in carbonate minerals ca 2.3 Gyr old, in particular, are here interpreted as indicating the importance of methanogenic bacteria in sediments rather than increased burial of organic carbon.
- © 2006 The Royal Society