Solar ultraviolet and the evolutionary history of cyanobacteria

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152 Scopus citations


On the basis of photobiological, evolutionary, paleontological, paleoenvironmental and physiological arguments, a time course for the role of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR, wavelengths below 400 nm) in the ecology and evolution of cyanobacteria is proposed in which three main periods can be distinguished. An initial stage, before the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis, when high environmental fluxes of UVC (wavelengths below 280 nm) and UVB (280-320 nm) may have depressed the ability of protocyanobacteria to develop large populations or restricted them to UVR refuges. A second stage lasting between 500 and 1500 Ma (million years) started with the appearance of true oxygen-evolving cyanobacteria and the concomitant formation of oxygenated (micro)environments under an oxygen free atmosphere. In this second stage, the age of UV, the overall importance of UVR must have increased substantially, since the incident fluxes of UVC and UVB remained virtually unchanged, but additionally the UVA portion of the spectrum (320-400 nm) suddenly became biologically injurious and extremely reactive oxygen species must have formed wherever oxygen and UVR spatially coincided. The last period began with the gradual oxygenation of the atmosphere and the formation of the stratospheric ozone shield. The physiological stress due to UVC all but disappeared and the effects of UBV were reduced to a large extent. Evidence in support of this dynamics is drawn from the phylogenetic distribution of biochemical UV-defense mechanisms among cyanobacteria and other microorganisms. The specific physical characteristics of UVR and oxygen exposure in planktonic, sedimentary and terrestrial habitats are used to explore the plausible impact of UVR in each of the periods on the ecological distribution of cyanobacteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-347
Number of pages27
JournalOrigins of life and evolution of the biosphere
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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