Did surface temperatures constrain microbial evolution?

D. Schwartzman, M. McMenamin, T. Volk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The proposition that glaciation may not have occurred before the Cenozoic--albeit not yet a consensus position--nevertheless raises for reconsideration the surface temperature history of the earth. Glacial episodes, from the Huronian (2.3 billion years ago; BYA) through the late Paleozoic (320 to 250 million years ago; MYA) have been critical constraints on estimation of the upper bounds of temperature (Crowley 1983, Kasting and Toon 1989). Once removed, few if any constraints on the upper temperature limit other than life remain. Walker (1982) recognized that life provides an upper limit to temperature in the Precambrian. We propose a more radical concept: the upper temperature limit for viable growth of a given microbial group corresponds to the actual surface temperature at the time of the group's first appearance. In particular, we propose here that two major evolutionary developments--the emergence of cyanobacteria and aerobic eukaryotes--can be used to determine surface temperature in the Precambrian, and that only subsequent cooling mediated by higher plants and then angiosperms permitted what may possibly be the earth's first glaciation in the late Cenozoic. NASA Edited

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)390-393
Number of pages4
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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