The first organisms to “breathe” oxygen—or at least use it—appeared 3.1 billion years ago, according to a new genetic analysis of dozens of families of microbes. The find is surprising because the Great Oxidation Event, which filled Earth’s atmosphere with the precious gas, didn’t occur until some 500 million years later.
“I was pretty thrilled to see this paper,” says Patrick Shih, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California (UC), Davis. The advent of proteins that can use oxygen, Shih and others say, marks a key step in the emergence of aerobic microbes, which are those able to harness oxygen. “The transition from a world that was mostly anaerobic to one that was mostly aerobic was one of the major innovations in life,” says Tim Lyons, a biogeochemist at UC Riverside.
Scientists broadly agree that Earth’s early atmosphere and oceans were all but devoid of oxygen gas. But there are signs that there was some oxygen around. Geochemists, for example, have found mineral deposits dated to about 3 billion years ago that they argue could only have formed in the presence of oxygen. And some evidence suggests cyanobacteria, the earliest photosynthetic organisms to release oxygen gas as a waste product—although not use it—may have arisen as early as 3.5 billion years ago.
A Texas A&M-led study analyzed ocean floor sediment cores to provide new insights into the relationship between deep ocean oxygenation and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the 50,000 years before the last ice age
Why do carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere wax and wane in conjunction with the warm and cold periods of Earth’s past? Scientists have been trying to answer this question for many years, and thanks to chemical clues left in sediment cores extracted from deep in the ocean floor, they are starting to put together the pieces of that puzzle.
Recent research suggests that there was enhanced storage of respired carbon in the deep ocean when levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were lower than today’s levels. But new research led by a Texas A&M University scientist has reached back even further, for the first time revealing insights into atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the 50,000 years before the last ice age.
Late in the prehistoric Silurian Period, around 420 million years ago, a devastating mass extinction event wiped 23 percent of all marine animals from the face of the planet.
For years, scientists struggled to connect a mechanism to this mass extinction, one of the 10 most dramatic ever recorded in Earth’s history. Now, researchers from Florida State University have confirmed that this event, referred to by scientists as the Lau/Kozlowskii extinction, was triggered by an all-too-familiar culprit: rapid and widespread depletion of oxygen in the global oceans.
The resurgence of forest clearing in the Amazon, which had decreased more than 80% following a peak in 2004, is alarming for many reasons. Tropical forests harbor many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. They are important refuges for indigenous people, and contain enormous stores of carbon as wood and other organic matter that would otherwise contribute to the climate crisis.
Some media accounts have suggested that fires in the Amazon also threaten the atmospheric oxygen that we breathe. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Aug. 22 that “the Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.”
Don’t hold your breath
Even though plant photosynthesis is ultimately responsible for breathable oxygen, only a vanishingly tiny fraction of that plant growth actually adds to the store of oxygen in the air. Even if all organic matter on Earth were burned at once, less than 1% of the world’s oxygen would be consumed.
In sum, Brazil’s reversal on protecting the Amazon does not meaningfully threaten atmospheric oxygen. Even a huge increase in forest fires would produce changes in oxygen that are difficult to measure. There’s enough oxygen in the air to last for millions of years, and the amount is set by geology rather than land use. The fact that this upsurge in deforestation threatens some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes on Earth is reason enough to oppose it.
These results, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology, are the first demonstration that vision in marine invertebrates is highly sensitive to the amount of available oxygen in the water.
Oxygen levels in the ocean are changing globally from natural and human-induced processes. Many marine invertebrates depend on vision to find food, shelter, and avoid predators, particularly in their early life stages when many are planktonic. This is especially true for crustaceans and cephalopods, which are common prey items for other animals and whose larvae are highly migratory in the water column.
Research on terrestrial animals has shown that low oxygen levels can affect vision. In fact, humans can lose visual function in low oxygen conditions. Pilots flying at high altitude, for instance, have been shown to experience vision impairment if aircraft fail to supplement cockpits with additional oxygen. Additionally, health problems such as high blood pressure and strokes, both associated with oxygen loss, can damage vision.
The levels of oxygen dramatically rose in the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago, but why it happened then has been debated. Some scientists think that 2.4 billion years ago is when organisms called cyanobacteria first evolved, which could perform oxygen-producing (oxygenic) photosynthesis.
Other scientist think that cyanobacteria evolved long before 2.4 billion years ago but something prevented oxygen from accumulating in the air.
Cyanobacteria perform a relatively sophisticated form of oxygenic photosynthesis — the same type of photosynthesis that all plants do today. It has therefore been suggested that simpler forms of oxygenic photosynthesis could have existed earlier, before cyanobacteria, leading to low levels of oxygen being available to life.
Now, a research team led by Imperial College London have found that oxygenic photosynthesis arose at least one billion years before cyanobacteria evolved. Their results, published in the journal Geobiology, show that oxygenic photosynthesis could have evolved very early in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.
A team led by scientists at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA, has calculated that if liquid water exists on Mars, it could — under specific conditions — contain more oxygen than previously thought possible. According to the model, the levels could even theoretically exceed the threshold needed to support simple aerobic life.
That finding runs contrary to the current, accepted view of Mars and its potential for hosting habitable environments. The existence of liquid water on Mars is not a given. Even if it is there, researchers have long dismissed the idea that it might be oxygenated, given that Mars’s atmosphere is about 160 times thinner than that of Earth and is mostly carbon dioxide.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, represent the oldest measurement of atmospheric oxygen isotopes by nearly a billion years. The results support previous research suggesting that oxygen levels in the air during this time in Earth history were a tiny fraction of what they are today due to a much less productive biosphere.
“It has been suggested for many decades now that the composition of the atmosphere has significantly varied through time,” says Peter Crockford, who led the study as a PhD student at McGill University. “We provide unambiguous evidence that it was indeed much different 1.4 billion years ago.”
The study provides the oldest gauge yet of what earth scientists refer to as “primary production,” in which micro-organisms at the base of the food chain — algae, cyanobacteria, and the like — produce organic matter from carbon dioxide and pour oxygen into the air.
Global climate change, fueled by skyrocketing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, is siphoning oxygen from today’s oceans at an alarming pace — so fast that scientists aren’t entirely sure how the planet will respond.
Millions of years ago, scientists discovered, powerful volcanoes pumped Earth’s atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, draining the oceans of oxygen and driving a mass extinction of marine organisms.
La géologie, une science plus que passionnante … et diverse