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Concept: Biosphere


Evidence of life on Earth is manifestly preserved in the rock record. However, the microfossil record only extends to ∼3.5 billion years (Ga), the chemofossil record arguably to ∼3.8 Ga, and the rock record to 4.0 Ga. Detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Western Australia range in age up to nearly 4.4 Ga. From a population of over 10,000 Jack Hills zircons, we identified one >3.8-Ga zircon that contains primary graphite inclusions. Here, we report carbon isotopic measurements on these inclusions in a concordant, 4.10 ± 0.01-Ga zircon. We interpret these inclusions as primary due to their enclosure in a crack-free host as shown by transmission X-ray microscopy and their crystal habit. Their δ(13)CPDB of -24 ± 5‰ is consistent with a biogenic origin and may be evidence that a terrestrial biosphere had emerged by 4.1 Ga, or ∼300 My earlier than has been previously proposed.

Concepts: Crystal, Earth, Carbon, X-ray microscope, Jack Hills, Zircon, Biosphere


Planet Earth’s biosphere has evolved over billions of years as a balanced bio-geological system ultimately sustained by sunpower and the large-scale cycling of elements largely run by the global environmental microbiome. Humans have been part of this picture for much of their existence. But the industrial revolution started in the XIX century and the subsequent advances in medicine, chemistry, agriculture and communications have impacted such balances to an unprecedented degree - and the problem has nothing but exacerbated in the last 20 years. Human overpopulation, industrial growth along with unsustainable use of natural resources have driven many sites and perhaps the planetary ecosystem as a whole, beyond recovery by spontaneous natural means, even if the immediate causes could be stopped. The most conspicuous indications of such a state of affairs include the massive change in land use, the accelerated increase in the levels of greenhouse gases, the frequent natural disasters associated to climate change and the growing non-recyclable waste (e.g. plastics and recalcitrant chemicals) that we release to the Environment. While the whole planet is afflicted at a global scale by chemical pollution and anthropogenic emissions, the ongoing development of systems and synthetic biology, metagenomics, modern chemistry and some key concepts from ecological theory allow us to tackle this phenomenal challenge and propose large-scale interventions aimed at reversing and even improving the situation. This involves (i) identification of key reactions or processes that need to be re-established (or altogether created) for ecosystem reinstallation, (ii) implementation of such reactions in natural or designer hosts able to self-replicate and deliver the corresponding activities when/where needed in a fashion guided by sound ecological modelling, (iii) dispersal of niche-creating agents at a global scale and (iv) containment, monitoring and risk assessment of the whole process.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Earth, Natural environment, Chemistry, Chemical substance, Climate change, Biosphere


The Atacama Desert is the most extreme non-polar biome on Earth, the core region of which is considered to represent the dry limit for life and to be an analogue for Martian soils. This study focused on actinobacteria because they are keystone species in terrestrial ecosystems and are acknowledged as an unrivalled source of bioactive compounds. Metagenomic analyses of hyper-arid and extreme hyper-arid soils in this desert revealed a remarkable degree of actinobacterial ‘dark matter’, evidenced by a detected increase of 34% in families against those that are validly published. Rank-abundance analyses indicated that these soils were high-diversity habitats and that the great majority of designated ‘rare’ genera (up to 60% of all phylotypes) were always rare. These studies have enabled a core actinobacterial microbiome common to both habitats to be defined. The great majority of detected taxa have not been recovered by culture dependent methods, neither, with very few exceptions, has their functional ecology been explored. A microbial seed bank of this magnitude has significance not just for Atacama soil ecosystem resilience but represents an enormous untapped resource for biotechnology discovery programmes in an era where resistance to existing antibiotics is rapidly becoming a major threat to global health.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecosystem, Chile, Dark matter, Atacama Desert, Desert, Rain shadow, Biosphere


Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Life, Ecology, Natural environment, Ecosystem, Sustainability, Biome, Biosphere


Since the late Pleistocene, large-bodied mammals have been extirpated from much of Earth. Although all habitable continents once harbored giant mammals, the few remaining species are largely confined to Africa. This decline is coincident with the global expansion of hominins over the late Quaternary. Here, we quantify mammalian extinction selectivity, continental body size distributions, and taxonomic diversity over five time periods spanning the past 125,000 years and stretching approximately 200 years into the future. We demonstrate that size-selective extinction was already under way in the oldest interval and occurred on all continents, within all trophic modes, and across all time intervals. Moreover, the degree of selectivity was unprecedented in 65 million years of mammalian evolution. The distinctive selectivity signature implicates hominin activity as a primary driver of taxonomic losses and ecosystem homogenization. Because megafauna have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function, past and present body size downgrading is reshaping Earth’s biosphere.

Concepts: Time, Human, Evolution, Ecology, Future, Paleontology, Pleistocene, Biosphere


Inland water ecosystems dynamically process, transport, and sequester carbon. However, the transport of carbon through aquatic environments has not been quantitatively integrated in the context of terrestrial ecosystems. Here, we present the first integrated assessment, to our knowledge, of freshwater carbon fluxes for the conterminous United States, where 106 (range: 71-149) teragrams of carbon per year (TgC⋅y(-1)) is exported downstream or emitted to the atmosphere and sedimentation stores 21 (range: 9-65) TgC⋅y(-1) in lakes and reservoirs. We show that there is significant regional variation in aquatic carbon flux, but verify that emission across stream and river surfaces represents the dominant flux at 69 (range: 36-110) TgC⋅y(-1) or 65% of the total aquatic carbon flux for the conterminous United States. Comparing our results with the output of a suite of terrestrial biosphere models (TBMs), we suggest that within the current modeling framework, calculations of net ecosystem production (NEP) defined as terrestrial only may be overestimated by as much as 27%. However, the internal production and mineralization of carbon in freshwaters remain to be quantified and would reduce the effect of including aquatic carbon fluxes within calculations of terrestrial NEP. Reconciliation of carbon mass-flux interactions between terrestrial and aquatic carbon sources and sinks will require significant additional research and modeling capacity.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Water, Petroleum, Ecosystem, Carbon, Aquatic ecosystem, Flux, Biosphere


We foresee a new global-scale, ecological approach to biomonitoring emerging within the next decade that can detect ecosystem change accurately, cheaply, and generically. Next-generation sequencing of DNA sampled from the Earth’s environments would provide data for the relative abundance of operational taxonomic units or ecological functions. Machine-learning methods would then be used to reconstruct the ecological networks of interactions implicit in the raw NGS data. Ultimately, we envision the development of autonomous samplers that would sample nucleic acids and upload NGS sequence data to the cloud for network reconstruction. Large numbers of these samplers, in a global array, would allow sensitive automated biomonitoring of the Earth’s major ecosystems at high spatial and temporal resolution, revolutionising our understanding of ecosystem change.

Concepts: Sample, Oxygen, Ecology, Hydrogen, Natural environment, Ecosystem, Universe, Biosphere


Earth is home to a remarkable diversity of plant forms and life histories, yet comparatively few essential trait combinations have proved evolutionarily viable in today’s terrestrial biosphere. By analysing worldwide variation in six major traits critical to growth, survival and reproduction within the largest sample of vascular plant species ever compiled, we found that occupancy of six-dimensional trait space is strongly concentrated, indicating coordination and trade-offs. Three-quarters of trait variation is captured in a two-dimensional global spectrum of plant form and function. One major dimension within this plane reflects the size of whole plants and their parts; the other represents the leaf economics spectrum, which balances leaf construction costs against growth potential. The global plant trait spectrum provides a backdrop for elucidating constraints on evolution, for functionally qualifying species and ecosystems, and for improving models that predict future vegetation based on continuous variation in plant form and function.

Concepts: Evolution, Organism, Life, Species, Plant, Fern, Biome, Biosphere


Tipping points - where systems shift radically and potentially irreversibly into a different state - have received considerable attention in ecology. Although there is convincing evidence that human drivers can cause regime shifts at local and regional scales, the increasingly invoked concept of planetary scale tipping points in the terrestrial biosphere remains unconfirmed. By evaluating potential mechanisms and drivers, we conclude that spatial heterogeneity in drivers and responses, and lack of strong continental interconnectivity, probably induce relatively smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns. This implies that identifying critical points along global continua of drivers might be unfeasible and that characterizing global biotic change with single aggregates is inapt.

Concepts: Ecology, Biosphere


Plant respiration constitutes a massive carbon flux to the atmosphere, and a major control on the evolution of the global carbon cycle. It therefore has the potential to modulate levels of climate change due to the human burning of fossil fuels. Neither current physiological nor terrestrial biosphere models adequately describe its short-term temperature response, and even minor differences in the shape of the response curve can significantly impact estimates of ecosystem carbon release and/or storage. Given this, it is critical to establish whether there are predictable patterns in the shape of the respiration-temperature response curve, and thus in the intrinsic temperature sensitivity of respiration across the globe. Analyzing measurements in a comprehensive database for 231 species spanning 7 biomes, we demonstrate that temperature-dependent increases in leaf respiration do not follow a commonly used exponential function. Instead, we find a decelerating function as leaves warm, reflecting a declining sensitivity to higher temperatures that is remarkably uniform across all biomes and plant functional types. Such convergence in the temperature sensitivity of leaf respiration suggests that there are universally applicable controls on the temperature response of plant energy metabolism, such that a single new function can predict the temperature dependence of leaf respiration for global vegetation. This simple function enables straightforward description of plant respiration in the land-surface components of coupled earth system models. Our cross-biome analyses shows significant implications for such fluxes in cold climates, generally projecting lower values compared with previous estimates.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Climate, Carbon, Climate change, Carbon cycle, Biosphere