Exactly when the first life on Earth - the ancestors of modern bacteria - began is a subject of debate, but evidence suggests it could be as much as 3.5 billion years ago.
Early bacterial life introduced oxygen to the atmosphere. As the first free oxygen was released through photosynthesis by cyanobacteria, it was initially soaked up by iron dissolved in the oceans and formed red coloured iron oxide, which settled to the ocean floor. Over time, distinctive sedimentary rocks called banded iron formations were created by these iron oxide deposits. Once the iron in the oceans was used up, the iron oxide stopped being deposited and oxygen was able to start building up in the atmosphere about 2.4 billion years ago.
Image: Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Stromatolites, which are formed by microscopic bacteria, are rare on Earth today but were much more common in the ancient Earth's seas. (credit: L Newman & A Flowers/SPL)
Volcanoes may have played an important role in the emergence of life.
Dr Iain Stewart explains how volcanic activity on the early Earth may have played an important role in the emergence of life about four billion years ago. He visits hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand, to meet Dr Bruce Mountain, who explains the theory.
Early life affected the structure of the planet.
Presenter Aubrey Manning and geologist Professor Maarten De Wit investigate iron rich rocks known as banded iron formations, which formed when stromatolites, some of the earliest known life forms on Earth, produced oxygen that combined with iron dissolved in the oceans.
Aubrey Manning visits the stromatolites of Shark Bay, Australia.
Aubrey Manning talks to Professor Maarten De Wit about the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. Stromatolites are mounds in shallow seas formed by millions of bacteria and are among the most ancient forms of life on Earth.
The famous Miller-Urey experiment investigates the first steps towards life.
In the 1950s, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, scientists at the University of Chicago, exposed a sealed flask full of the inorganic chemicals that may have been present in the atmosphere of the early Earth to an electrical current. Amino acids, the organic chemical precursors to proteins, were generated. They showed that it was theoretically possible for lightning strikes in an atmosphere full of their inorganic ingredients to generate some of the organic precursors to life. Many scientists now think that the early Earth may have had an atmosphere with a different composition to the one that Miller and Urey experimented with.
Stromatolites pump oxygen into the early atmosphere.
Dr Iain Stewart explains how stromatolites, one of the earliest forms of life, first released oxygen over three billion years ago when they turned sunlight into energy. Oxygen was initially soaked up by iron in the seas but eventually entered the atmosphere.
The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE, also called the Oxygen Catastrophe, Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Holocaust, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation) was the biologically induced appearance of dioxygen (O2) in Earth's atmosphere. Although geological, isotopic, and chemical evidence suggest that this major environmental change happened around 2.3 billion years ago (2.3 Ga), the actual causes and the exact date of the event are not clear. The current geochemical and biomarker evidence for the development of oxygenic photosynthesis before the Great Oxidation Event has been mostly inconclusive.
Oceanic cyanobacteria, which evolved into multicellular forms more than 2.3 billion years ago (approximately 200 million years before the GOE), are believed to have become the first microbes to produce oxygen by photosynthesis. Before the GOE, any free oxygen they produced was chemically captured by dissolved iron or organic matter. The GOE was the point in time when these oxygen sinks became saturated, at which point oxygen, produced by the cyanobacteria, was free to escape into the atmosphere.
The increased production of oxygen set Earth's original atmosphere off balance. Free oxygen is toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms, and the rising concentrations may have destroyed most such organisms at the time. Cyanobacteria were therefore responsible for one of the most significant extinction events in Earth's history. Besides marine cyanobacteria, there is also evidence of cyanobacteria on land.
A spike in chromium contained in ancient rock deposits formed underwater shows they had accumulated chromium washed off from continental shelves. Chromium is not easily dissolved and its release from rocks would have required the presence of a powerful acid. One such acid, sulfuric acid, might have been created through bacterial reactions with pyrite.Mats of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria can produce a thin layer, one or two millimeters thick, of oxygenated water in an otherwise anoxic environment even under thick ice, and before oxygen started accumulating in the atmosphere, these organisms would already be adapted to oxygen. Additionally, the free oxygen would have reacted with atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas, greatly reducing its concentration and triggering the Huronian glaciation, possibly the longest episode of glaciation in Earth's history and called snowball Earth.
Eventually, the evolution of aerobic organisms that consumed oxygen established an equilibrium in its availability. Free oxygen has been an important constituent of the atmosphere ever since.