The fossil record indicates that eukaryotes—single-celled and multicellular organisms with more complex cellular structures compared to prokaryotes, such as bacteria—show limited morphological and functional diversity before 800-600 million years ago. Many researchers attribute the delayed diversification and proliferation of eukaryotes, which culminated in the appearance of complex animals about 600 million years ago, to very low levels of the trace metal zinc in seawater.

As it is for humans, zinc is essential for a wide range of basic cellular processes. Zinc-binding proteins, primarily located in the cell nucleus, are involved in the regulation of gene transcription.

Eukaryotes have increasingly incorporated zinc-binding structures during the last third of their evolutionary history and still employ both early- and late-evolving zinc-binding protein structures. Zinc is, therefore, of particular importance to eukaryotic organisms. And so it is not a stretch to blame the 1-2-billion-year delay in the diversification of eukaryotes on low bioavailability of this trace metal.

But after analyzing marine black shale samples from North America, Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe, ranging in age from 2.7 billion years to 580 million years old, the researchers found that the shales reflect high seawater zinc availability and that zinc concentrations during the Proterozoic (2.5 billion to 542 million years ago) were similar to modern concentrations. Zinc, the researchers posit, was never biolimiting.