By: April Carson
The evolution of some of Earth's earliest organisms may have been influenced by oxygen-producing reactions that were facilitated by earthquakes and other geological processes. This theory has been put forward by researchers from the University of Washington, who studied rocks from 3.8 billion years ago to create a timeline for when oxygen first began appearing in Earth's atmosphere.
The team focused on a type of rock called banded iron formations (BIFs), which are sedimentary rocks composed mostly of iron oxides and silica. These types of rocks are thought to have formed in shallow oceans, where geological processes released large amounts of dissolved iron compounds into the water. Over time, these compounds combined with oxygen molecules created through photosynthesis or atmospheric oxidation to form BIFs.
Previously, Earth's atmosphere had very little oxygen. However, today the oxygen content has increased and makes up about one-fifth of the atmosphere. This increase in oxygen can largely be attributed to the Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.4 to 2.3 billion years ago, resulting in the spread of microbes that release oxygen through photosynthesis. Most of the oxygen present in Earth's atmosphere today is produced by plants and microbes.
However, the University of Washington team suggests that oxygen levels may have begun to rise much earlier than previously thought. According to their research, the geological processes involved in forming BIFs could have created a cycle of oxidation and reduction reactions that would have slowly released free oxygen into the atmosphere. They believe this process began as early as 3.8 billion years ago and would have been driven by earthquakes, landslides, or other dramatic events that disturbed the seabed and triggered a chain reaction of chemical processes.
The fact that antioxidant enzymes are present in various species suggests that their common ancestor existed before the Great Oxidation Event and was exposed to some level of oxygen. This research provides further evidence that oxygen levels may have been rising steadily over time, rather than being primarily driven by the Great Oxidation Event.
The researchers, including Mark Thiemens from the University of California, San Diego, ground quartz rock and exposed it to water under prehistoric Earth-like chemical conditions without high levels of oxygen. They chose quartz as it's the most readily available and uncomplicated silicate mineral. The team then heated rock samples to test how they produced oxygen when exposed to water. "Our experiments were done under conditions of very low oxygen levels that may have prevailed on Earth before the Great Oxidation Event," Thiemens said.
Their findings suggest that the quartz reacted with iron compounds, releasing oxygen in the process. This oxygen was then absorbed by other molecules and released back into the atmosphere upon oxidation, creating a cycle of oxidizing and reduction reactions across Earth's early oceans.
It was discovered that the cracked crystals present on the quartz surface can interact with water and generate molecular oxygen and other reactive oxygen species, like hydrogen peroxide. These molecules, also called free radicals, possess the ability to harm DNA and other cell components. Such a mechanism can be advantageous for certain instances, like the evolution of new species. These findings help understand the role of minerals in the early stages of evolution. "Minerals can actually drive a geochemical cycle, which can lead to the production of molecules that could have been used for the first signs of life on Earth," Thiemens said.
The researchers hope that their findings will help create a more accurate timeline for the evolution of Earth's early life forms and the spread of oxygen in its atmosphere. The team believes that this study is an important step towards understanding how Earth's first organisms evolved and adapted to changes in their environment over time.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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