Mercury isotope signatures record photic zone euxinia in the Mesoproterozoic ocean

Wang Zheng, Geoffrey J. Gilleaudeau, Linda C. Kah, Ariel Anbar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Photic zone euxinia (PZE) is a condition where anoxic, H2S-rich waters occur in the photic zone (PZ). PZE has been invoked as an impediment to the evolution of complex life on early Earth and as a kill mechanism for Phanerozoic mass extinctions. Here, we investigate the potential application of mercury (Hg) stable isotopes in marine sedimentary rocks as a proxy for PZE by measuring Hg isotope compositions in late Mesoproterozoic (∼1.1 Ga) shales that have independent evidence of PZE during discrete intervals. Strikingly, a significantly negative shift of Hg mass-independent isotope fractionation (MIF) was observed during euxinic intervals, suggesting changes in Hg sources or transformations in oceans coincident with the development of PZE. We propose that the negative shift of Hg MIF was most likely caused by (i) photoreduction of Hg(II) complexed by reduced sulfur ligands in a sulfide-rich PZ, and (ii) enhanced sequestration of atmospheric Hg(0) to the sediments by thiols and sulfide that were enriched in the surface ocean as a result of PZE. This study thus demonstrates that Hg isotope compositions in ancient marine sedimentary rocks can be a promising proxy for PZE and therefore may provide valuable insights into changes in ocean chemistry and its impact on the evolution of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10594-10599
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 16 2018


  • Mass-independent fractionation
  • Mercury
  • Mesoproterozoic
  • Photic zone euxinia
  • Stable isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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