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Earliest photic zone niches probed by ancestral microbial rhodopsins


For billions of years, life has continuously adapted to dynamic physical conditions near the Earth's surface. Fossils and other preserved biosignatures in the paleontological record are the most direct evidence for reconstructing the broad historical contours of this adaptive interplay. However, biosignatures dating to Earth's earliest history are exceedingly rare. Here, we combine phylogenetic inference of primordial rhodopsin proteins with modeled spectral features of the Precambrian Earth environment to reconstruct the paleobiological history of this essential family of photoactive transmembrane proteins. Our results suggest that ancestral microbial rhodopsins likely acted as light-driven proton pumps and were spectrally tuned toward the absorption of green light, which would have enabled their hosts to occupy depths in a water column or biofilm where UV wavelengths were attenuated. Subsequent diversification of rhodopsin functions and peak absorption frequencies was enabled by the expansion of surface ecological niches induced by the accumulation of atmospheric oxygen. Inferred ancestors retain distinct associations between extant functions and peak absorption frequencies. Our findings suggest that novel information encoded by biomolecules can be used as "paleosensors" for conditions of ancient, inhabited niches of host organisms not represented elsewhere in the paleontological record. The coupling of functional diversification and spectral tuning of this taxonomically diverse protein family underscores the utility of rhodopsins as universal testbeds for inferring remotely detectable biosignatures on inhabited planetary bodies.

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