Architects of earth's atmosphere
Cyanobacteria are aquatic and photosynthetic, that is, they live in the water, and can manufacture their own food. Because they are bacteria, they are quite small and usually unicellular, though they often grow in colonies large enough to see. They have the distinction of being the oldest known fossils, more than 3.5 billion years old, in fact! It may surprise you then to know that the cyanobacteria are still around; they are one of the largest and most important groups of bacteria on earth.
Many Proterozoic oil deposits are attributed to the activity of cyanobacteria. They are also important providers of nitrogen fertilizer in the cultivation of rice and beans. The cyanobacteria have also been tremendously important in shaping the course of evolution and ecological change throughout earth's history. The oxygen atmosphere that we depend on was generated by numerous cyanobacteria during the Archaean and Proterozoic Eras. Before that time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry, unsuitable for life as we know it today.
The other great contribution of the cyanobacteria is the origin of plants. The chloroplast with which plants make food for themselves is actually a cyanobacterium living within the plant's cells. Sometime in the late Proterozoic, or in the early Cambrian, cyanobacteria began to take up residence within certain eukaryote cells, making food for the eukaryote host in return for a home. This event is also the origin of the eukaryotic mitochondrion.
Because they are photosynthetic and aquatic, cyanobacteria are often called "blue-green algae". This name is convenient for talking about organisms in the water that make their own food, but does not reflect any relationship between the cyanobacteria and other organisms called algae. Cyanobacteria are relatives of the bacteria, not eukaryotes, and it is only the chloroplast in eukaryotic algae to which the cyanobacteria are related.
The cyanobacteria have an extensive fossil record. The oldest known fossils, in fact, are cyanobacteria from Archaean rocks of western Australia, dated 3.5 billion years old. This may be somewhat surprising, since the oldest rocks are only a little older: 3.8 billion years old!
Cyanobacteria are among the easiest microfossils to recognize. Small fossilized cyanobacteria have been extracted from Precambrian rock, and studied through the use of SEM and TEM (scanning and transmission electron microscopy).
Ancient Fossil Bacteria: Pictured above are two kinds cyanobacteria from the Bitter Springs chert of central Australia, a site dating to the Late Proterozoic, about 850 million years old. On the left is a colonial chroococcalean form, and on the right is the filamentous Palaeolyngbya.
At right is a layered stromatolite, produced by the activity of ancient cyanobacteria. The layers were produced as calcium carbonate precipitated over the growing mat of bacterial filaments; photosynthesis in the bacteria depleted carbon dioxide in the surrounding water, initiating the precipitation. The minerals, along with grains of sediment precipitating from the water, were then trapped within the sticky layer of mucilage that surrounds the bacterial colonies, which then continued to grow upwards through the sediment to form a new layer. As this process occured over and over again, the layers of sediment were created. This process still occurs today; Shark Bay in western Australia is well known for the stromatolite "turfs" rising along its beaches.
In some cases, the stromatolites were infiltrated with a mineral-rich solution which fossilized the bacteria along with the layers, but more often only the layers are preserved.
The oldest stromatolites date to the Early Archaean, and they became abundant by the end of the Archaean. In the Proterozoic, stromatolites were widespread on earth, and were ecologically important as the first reefs. By the close of the Proterozoic, the abundance of stromatolites decreased markedly, though cyanobacteria continued to leave a fossil record.
The cyanobacteria have also been tremendously important in shaping the course of evolution and ecological change throughout earth's history. The oxygen atmosphere that we depend on was generated by numerous cyanobacteria photosynthesizing during the Archaean and Proterozoic Era. Before that time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry, unsuitable for life as we know it today.
Adapted from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/bacteria/cyanointro.html