The nitrogen cycle provides essential nutrients to the biosphere, but its antiquity in modern form is unclear. In a drill core though homogeneous organic-rich shale in the 2.5-billion-year-old Mount McRae Shale, Australia, nitrogen isotope values vary from +1.0 to +7.5 per mil (‰) and back to +2.5‰ over ∼30 meters. These changes evidently record a transient departure from a largely anaerobic to an aerobic nitrogen cycle complete with nitrification and denitrification. Complementary molybdenum abundance and sulfur isotopic values suggest that nitrification occurred in response to a small increase in surface-ocean oxygenation. These data imply that nitrifying and denitrifying microbes had already evolved by the late Archean and were present before oxygen first began to accumulate in the atmosphere.
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