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No. 67: Jan-Feb 1990

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Microorganisms complicate the k-t boundary

Ancient bacteria, it appears, have tampered with the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary of some 65 million years ago. A key marker of this boundary is a thin "spike" of iridium that is found worldwide, and which was supposedly deposited by the asteroid impact that helped finish off the dinosaurs. For many scientists, the asteroid-impact scenario has become a "non-negotiable" brick in the Temple of Science. The problem they have faced is that the iridium layer is variable in thickness and concentration from site to site. Sometimes iridium can be detected well above and below the K-T boundary. This variability has tended to undermine the asteroid-impact theory.

Recent experiments at Wheaton College by B.D. Dyer et al have demonstrated that bacteria in ground water can both concentrate and disperse iridium deposits. In other words, bacteria could smear out an iridium spike, perhaps partially erase it, or even move it to a deeper or shallower layer of sediment.

(Monastersky, R.; "Microbes Complicate the K-T Mystery," Science News, 136: 341, 1989.)

Comment. An obvious question now is how bacteria might have affected other chemicals, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes, widely used in stratigraphy.

From Science Frontiers #67, JAN-FEB 1990. 1990-2000 William R. Corliss