Catalyst Centre tenant’s research unlocks the dawn of animal life on earth

Catalyst Centre tenant, Dr. Thomas Gernon of Volturnus, has been the centre of attention in the media this week as awareness grew about some groundbreaking research which he conducted during a sabbatical at the Science Park’s Incubation Centre last year.

As the lead author of the study, together with colleagues from the Universities of Southampton, Bristol and The Australian National University, Tom has suggested an intriguing solution to an age-old conundrum for geoscientists: how and why did ocean chemistry change as Earth emerged from its deep freeze 700 million years ago?

And the answer? Underwater volcanoes!

It seems that widespread explosive underwater volcanoes were the catalyst for change, transforming the Earth from icehouse to greenhouse. These sub-marine volcanoes helped transform our planet, leading to a chemical chain of reactions, which ultimately led to life on earth.

In a nutshell, ‘Snowball Earth’ existed for tens of millions of years, buried in massive ice sheets with surface temperatures as low as -50°C. During this severe ice age the Earth was largely white, reflecting rather than absorbing the sun’s energy. However, below the surface of the oceans, the accumulation of carbon dioxide emissions from ongoing volcanic activity led to sufficient atmospheric warming to rapidly melt the ice cover.

This in turn resulted in high phosphorus levels, which helped oxygenate the atmosphere and oceans. Phosphorous is one of the key elements of life – crucial for the creation of DNA and cell membranes. It is now thought that an increase in phosphorous would have stimulated the transformation of the Earth’s inhabitants at this time (free-floating bacteria consisting of just one cell) into multicellular organisms. As these organisms – largely made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – were continuously buried on the seafloor, the carbon remained there, leading to an increase in free oxygen levels in the water and atmosphere. The algae and cyanobacteria also produced and released oxygen via photosynthesis – crucial for animal life to evolve.

Tom’s research paper has whipped up considerable excitement in the scientific and mainstream media after it was initially published on Nature Geoscience this week, featuring prominently on its website too. Since then The Conversation, IFLScience (6,000 likes!) and the Daily Mail have picked up on it and there’s no doubt that more will follow.

“Being based in the Incubation Centre at the University of Southampton Science Park surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals really inspired me during the course of this project. It’s very pleasing to see such a positive response in the media” said Tom. “It was a major piece of work and hopefully it will stimulate further  scientific knowledge and technical advances. As well as writing this paper, being based on the Park meant that I was surrounded by an entrepreneurial buzz that has inspired me to start-up my own business as part of the Catalyst Centre programme.”