London: A humble microbe, instead of a devastating meteorite or a catastrophic volcanic eruption, wiped off over 90 percent of the species on Earth 251-million-years ago, scientists believe.
According to prevailing theory, the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period was triggered by volcanic eruptions over a vast area of what is now Siberia, which led, among other things, to a dramatic rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, according to Daniel Rothman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the scenario just doesn't fit the facts.
From his analysis of an end-Permian sediment sample from China, Rothman says carbon levels surged much too quickly for geological processes to be at work. Microbes can generate carbon compounds that fast, though.
As Rothman's group analysed the genome of Methanosarcina - a methanogen responsible for most of Earth's biogenic methane today - they discovered that the microbe gained this ability about 231-million-years ago.
The date was close to that of the mass extinction, but not close enough to suggest a link.
Methanosarcina needs large amounts of nickel to produce methane quickly. When the team went back to their sediment cores, they discovered that nickel levels spiked almost exactly 251 million years ago - probably because the Siberian lavas were rich in the metal.
This suggests Methanosarcina did trigger the extinction, Rothman told the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last week.
"[But] it's a fascinating idea that the evolution of a new life form led to an extinction," says Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley.
Today's mass extinction of biodiversity is similar because it is largely driven by our species, said Barnosky.
First Published: Sunday, December 16, 2012, 16:08