Early life: Oxygen enters the atmosphere

Stromatolites

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)

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Early life: Oxygen enters the atmosphere

The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), also called the Oxygen Catastrophe, Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation, was the biologically induced appearance of dioxygen (O2) in Earth's atmosphere. Geological, isotopic, and chemical evidence suggest that this major environmental change happened around 2.3 billion years ago (2.3 Ga).

Cyanobacteria, which appeared about 200 million years before the GOE, began producing 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 when these oxygen sinks became saturated and could not capture all of the oxygen that was produced by cyanobacterial photosynthesis. After the GOE, the excess free oxygen started to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Free oxygen is toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms, and the rising concentrations may have wiped out most of the Earth's anaerobic inhabitants at the time. Cyanobacteria were therefore responsible for one of the most significant extinction events in Earth's history. Additionally, the free oxygen reacted with atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas, greatly reducing its concentration and triggering the Huronian glaciation, possibly the longest snowball Earth episode in the Earth's history.

Eventually, aerobic organisms began to evolve, consuming oxygen and bringing about an equilibrium in its availability. Free oxygen has been an important constituent of the atmosphere ever since.

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