Biological overprint of the geological carbon cycle

Miriam E. Katz, James D. Wright, Kenneth G. Miller, Benjamin S. Cramer, Katja Fennel, Paul G. Falkowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Scopus citations


The oxidation of Earth's atmosphere is coupled to the net sequestration of organic matter, which is related to the relative fractions of organic carbon (forg) and carbonate (fcarb) buried in marine sediments. These fractions can be inferred from carbon isotope data. We present bulk sediment δ13C records of carbonate (δ13C carb) and organic carbon (δ13Corg) with a compilation of evolutionary trajectories of major eucaryotic phytoplankton for the past 205 million years. Our analysis indicates that changes in phytoplankton community structure, coupled with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean basin and global sea-level rise, increased the efficiency of organic carbon burial beginning in the Early Jurassic; in turn, this organic carbon burial increased the oxidation state of Earth's surface while drawing down atmospheric CO 2 levels (assuming no substantial negative feedbacks). The net oxidation and CO2 drawdown appear to be related to the opening phase of the current Wilson cycle, where the newly formed passive plate margins store organic matter for hundreds of millions of years. This process should reverse during the closing phase of the Wilson cycle, when the continents reassemble and the Atlantic Ocean basin closes. The associated oxidation and storage of organic matter have contributed to the long-term depletion of CO2, which was a key factor that selected C4 photosynthetic pathways in marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the latter part of the Cenozoic; these pathways increasingly influenced δ13Corg, and ultimately contributed to the reversal of the long-term trend in δ13Ccarb.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-338
Number of pages16
JournalMarine Geology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jun 15 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Geology
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


  • Carbon isotopes
  • Organic carbon burial
  • Oxidation state
  • Phytoplankton
  • Wilson cycle


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