Silent But Deadly

Forget meteorites: the “Great Dying” mass extinction event 252 million years ago may have been caused by farts

The physical environment can produce sudden shocks to the life of our planet through impacting space rocks, erupting volcanoes and other events. But sometimes life itself turns the tables and strikes a swift blow back to the environment. MIT researchers have identified a different culprit — one coming from biology rather than geology. They argue that the carbon disruption and, consequently, the end-Permian extinction were set off by a particular microorganism that evolved a new way to digest organic material into methane.

The end-Permian (or PT) extinction event occurred 252 million years ago. It is often called the Great Dying because around 90 percent of marine species disappeared in one fell swoop. Similar numbers died on land as well, producing a stark contrast between Permian rock layers beneath (or before) the extinction and the Triassic layers above. Extinctions are common throughout time, but for this one, the fossil record truly skipped a beat.
“The end-Permian is the greatest extinction event that we know of,” said Daniel Rothman, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The changes in the fossil record were obvious even to 19th Century geologists.”

Understanding the cause of this biological devastation requires understanding the geochemical clues that go along with it. Chief among these clues is a sudden swing in the balance of carbon isotopes stored in rocks from that same time period. If geologists can find what disrupted the carbon, they’ll likely know what killed off so much of the Earth’s life forms. Several theories have tried to explain the carbon perturbation as, for example, massive volcanism, or a drop in sea level, but none of these environmental causes have fully matched the data.

With this genetic innovation, these methane-producers, or methanogens, ran rampant across the ocean, overturning the carbon cycle. The resulting changes in ocean chemistry would have driven many species to extinction.

Based on my own experience after a particularly tasty curry, this is a theory I can believe.

(via Ace’s sidebar)

2 Responses to “Silent But Deadly”

  1. Syd B. says:

    …and to think that all this predated the creation of my wife’s meatloaf.

  2. JeffS says:

    This is not a new phenomena. The boffins should visit one of my family reunions.

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