Oxygen evolution on Earth

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Today, life on Earth depends on the availability of free oxygen, whether in the atmosphere, oceans or aquatic systems. However, oxygen concentrations were low and variable for most of the first four billion years of Earth's history. In this web focus, we bring together a collection of research and review articles as well as opinion pieces that trace the origins of oxygenic photosynthesis and the factors that allowed oxygen to accumulate in the oceans and atmosphere



Evolutionary two-step p245


The march from an Archaean microbial world to the modern reign of more complex life was slow but not steady. Instead, the rise of the animals may have resulted from an intricate back-and-forth between evolving life and the Earth's environment.


Books & Arts

Earth's oxygen unravelled p248


Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History by Donald E. Canfield


News & Views

Palaeontology: Late to the mix p253

Alicia Newton


Early Earth: Cyanobacteria at work pp253-254

Alan J. Kaufman


Oxygen-producing photosynthesis must have evolved before the pervasive oxidation of the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago, but how long before is unclear. Geochemical analyses of ancient sedimentary rocks now suggest that cyanobacteria generated oxygen at least 3 billion years ago.



Co-evolution of eukaryotes and ocean oxygenation in the Neoproterozoic era pp257-265


Timothy M. Lenton, Richard A. Boyle, Simon W. Poulton, Graham A. Shields-Zhou & Nicholas J. Butterfield


The oxygenation of the Earth's deep oceans is often thought to have triggered the evolution of simple animals. A review article proposes that instead, the evolution of animal life set off a series of biogeochemical feedbacks that promoted the oxygenation of the deep sea.



Evidence for oxygenic photosynthesis half a billion years before the Great Oxidation Event pp283-286

Noah J. Planavsky, Dan Asael, Axel Hofmann, Christopher T. Reinhard, Stefan V. Lalonde, Andrew Knudsen, Xiangli Wang, Frantz Ossa Ossa, Ernesto Pecoits, Albertus J. B. Smith, Nicolas J. Beukes, Andrey Bekker, Thomas M. Johnson, Kurt O. Konhauser, Timothy W. Lyons & Olivier J. Rouxel


The evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis should have occurred some time before the oxidation of Earth's atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago. The molybdenum isotopic signature of shallow marine rocks that formed at least 2.95 billion years ago is consistent with deposition in waters that were receiving oxygen from photosynthesis at least half a billion years before the oxidation of the atmosphere.


From the archive


News & Views

Palaeontology: Breathing room for early animals pp354-355

Jake Bailey


Animals originated in a world with marine oxygen levels only a fraction of those found in today's oceans. Observations of microbial habitats in present-day lagoons suggest that early animals could have found refuge in oxygen-producing mats.

Early Earth: Microbes and the rise of oxygen pp522-523

Andrew D. Czaja


Reconstructions of atmospheric chemistry and microbial life early in the Earth's history have been contentious. Observations increasingly point to the evolution of complex and variable environments earlier in time.



The mystery of atmospheric oxygen pp9-10

James Kasting


Readily available O2 is vital to life as we know it. James Kasting looks at how and when the first whiffs of oxygen began to reach the Earth's atmosphere.



Potential influence of sulphur bacteria on Palaeoproterozoic phosphogenesis pp27-29

Aivo Lepland, Lauri Joosu, Kalle Kirsimäe, Anthony R. Prave, Alexander E. Romashkin, Alenka E. Črne, Adam P. Martin, Anthony E. Fallick, Peeter Somelar, Kärt Üpraus, Kaarel Mänd, Nick M. W. Roberts, Mark A. van Zuilen, Richard Wirth & Anja Schreiber


The first known phosphorus-rich deposits formed 2 billion years ago, but their origins are unclear. Geochemical and palaeontological analyses of 2-billion-year-old deposits from northwest Russia suggest that the presence of sulphur-oxidizing bacteria and a sharp oxic–anoxic transition in the sediments allowed for phosphorus accumulation in this setting.

Bioavailability of zinc in marine systems through time pp125-128

Clint Scott, Noah J. Planavsky, Chris L. Dupont, Brian Kendall, Benjamin C. Gill, Leslie J. Robbins, Kathryn F. Husband, Gail L. Arnold, Boswell A. Wing, Simon W. Poulton, Andrey Bekker, Ariel D. Anbar, Kurt O. Konhauser & Timothy W. Lyons


Zinc is a marine nutrient that may have been limited in the early oceans. Estimates of marine zinc availability through time suggest that values were instead near-modern during the Proterozoic eon.

Contributions to late Archaean sulphur cycling by life on land pp722-725

Eva E. Stüeken, David C. Catling & Roger Buick


Life on land dates back at least 2.7 billion years, but the effects of this early terrestrial biosphere on biogeochemical cycling are poorly constrained. Marine sulphur data and geochemical modelling suggest that microbial pyrite weathering has transferred a substantial amount of sulphur to the oceans for at least 2.5 billion years.

Possible evolution of mobile animals in association with microbial mats pp372-375

Murray Gingras, James W. Hagadorn, Adolf Seilacher, Stefan V. Lalonde, Ernesto Pecoits, Daniel Petrash & Kurt O. Konhauser


The evolution of marine complex animals about 635 million years ago took place in relatively low-oxygen waters. An analysis of a low-oxygen, hypersaline lagoon suggests these early animals may have obtained both oxygen and food from widespread microbial mats.

Spatial variability in oceanic redox structure 1.8 billion years ago pp486-490

Simon W. Poulton, Philip W. Fralick & Donald E. Canfield


The deposition of iron formations ceased about 1.84 billion years ago. Reconstructions of ocean chemistry suggest that the advent of euxinic conditions along ocean margins preferentially removed dissolved iron from the water column in the form of the mineral pyrite, inhibiting widespread iron-oxide mineral deposition.



A bistable organic-rich atmosphere on the Neoarchaean Earth pp359-363

Aubrey L. Zerkle, Mark W. Claire, Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, James Farquhar & Simon W. Poulton


Before the rise of oxygen, the atmosphere of the early Earth may have consisted of an organic haze. Geochemical data and modelling suggest that from 2.65 to 2.5?Gyr ago, several transitions between hazy and haze-free atmospheric conditions occurred, potentially linked to variations in biogenic methane production.

Pervasive oxygenation along late Archaean ocean margins pp647-652

Brian Kendall, Christopher T. Reinhard, Timothy W. Lyons, Alan J. Kaufman, Simon W. Poulton & Ariel D. Anbar


The photosynthetic production of oxygen in the ocean is thought to have begun at least 2.7 billion years ago. The geochemistry of marine sediments deposited 2.6 billion years ago suggests that ocean margins were oxygenated at least 100 million years before the first significant increase in atmospheric oxygen concentrations.

The cycling and redox state of nitrogen in the Archaean ocean pp725-729

Linda V. Godfrey & Paul G. Falkowski


The initial production of oxygen in early Earth's oceans altered the redox chemistry and cycling of nitrogen. A record of nitrogen isotopes from preserved organic matter indicates nitrogen cycling in the presence of free oxygen 2.67 billion years ago, about 200 million years before the first geochemical evidence for atmospheric free oxygen.

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