Life helps make almost half of all minerals on earth

“Each of these types of pyrite tells us something different about our planet, where it came from, about life and how it has changed over time,” Hazen said.

For this reason, the new papers classify minerals by “type,” a term Hazen and Morrison define as a combination of mineral type and mechanism of origin (think volcanic pyrite versus microbial pyrite). Using machine learning analytics, they sift through data from thousands of scientific papers and identified 10,556 different types of minerals.

Morrison and Hazen also identified 57 processes that, individually or in combination, produced all known minerals. These processes included various types of weathering, chemical precipitation, metamorphic changes within the mantle, lightning strikes, radiation, oxidation, massive impacts during Earth formation, and even condensation in interstellar space prior to planet formation. They confirmed that the single largest contributor to mineral diversity on Earth is water, which through a variety of chemical and physical processes helps create more than 80 percent of minerals.

Blue-green formations of malachite form in near-surface copper deposits due to weathering. But they could only form after life increased atmospheric oxygen levels, beginning about 2.5 billion years ago.Photo: Rob Lavinsky/ARKENSTONE

But they also found that life plays a key role: A third of all types of minerals form solely as parts or by-products of living things — like bits of bone, teeth, coral and kidney stones (all of which are rich in minerals). , or feces, wood, microbial mats, and other organic materials that over geologic time can absorb elements from their surroundings and turn into something more akin to rock. Thousands of minerals are formed by the activity of life in other ways, such as germanium compounds that form in industrial coal fires. Including substances produced by interactions with life’s by-products, such as the oxygen produced during photosynthesis, life’s fingerprints are on about half of all minerals.

In the past, scientists “artificially drew a line between geochemistry and biochemistry,” said Nita Sahai, a biomineralization specialist at the University of Akron in Ohio who was not involved with the new research. In reality, the boundary between animal, plant, and mineral is much more fluid. For example, the human body is made up of about 2% by weight minerals, most of which is locked in the calcium phosphate framework that strengthens our teeth and bones.

This diamond formed deep in Earth’s mantle, but diamonds can form in at least nine different ways, including condensation in the atmospheres of old, cooling stars, meteorite or asteroid impacts, and ultrahigh pressures in subduction zones between tectonic plates.

Photo: Rob Lavinsky/ARKENSTONE

How deeply intertwined the mineralogical with the biological may come as no great surprise to geoscientists, Sahai said, but Morrison and Hazen’s new taxonomy “gives it a nice systematization and makes it more accessible to a broader community.”

The new mineral taxonomy is welcomed by some scientists. (“The old one sucked,” said Sarah Carmichael, a mineralogy researcher at Appalachian State University.) Others, like Carlos Gray Santana, a philosopher of science at the University of Utah, stand by the IMA system even when it doesn’t. t take into account the nature of mineral development. “That’s not a problem,” he said, because the IMA taxonomy was developed for applied purposes like chemistry, mining, and engineering, and it still works great in those fields. “It is well suited to meet our practical needs.”

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