Banded iron formations (BIFs) are prominent sedimentary deposits of the Precambrian, but despite a century of endeavor, the mechanisms of their deposition are still unresolved. Interactions between microorganisms and dissolved ferrous iron in the ancient oceans offer one plausible means of mineral precipitation, in which bacteria directly generate ferric iron either by chemolithoautotrophic iron oxidation or by photoferrotrophy. On the basis of chemical analyses from BIF units of the 2.5 Ga Hamersley Group, Western Australia, we show here that even during periods of maximum iron precipitation, most, if not all, of the iron in BIFs could be precipitated by iron-oxidizing bacteria in cell densities considerably less than those found in modern Fe-rich aqueous environments. Those ancient microorganisms would also have been easily supported by the concentrations of nutrients (P) and trace metals (V, Mn, Co, Zn, and Mo) found within the same iron-rich bands. These calculations highlight the potential importance of early microbial activity on ancient metal cycling.

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