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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Aug 27;363(1504):2705-16. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0054.

Electrons, life and the evolution of Earth's oxygen cycle.

Author information

  • 1Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA. falko@marine.rutgers.edu <falko@marine.rutgers.edu>

Abstract

The biogeochemical cycles of H, C, N, O and S are coupled via biologically catalysed electron transfer (redox) reactions. The metabolic processes responsible for maintaining these cycles evolved over the first ca 2.3 Ga of Earth's history in prokaryotes and, through a sequence of events, led to the production of oxygen via the photobiologically catalysed oxidation of water. However, geochemical evidence suggests that there was a delay of several hundred million years before oxygen accumulated in Earth's atmosphere related to changes in the burial efficiency of organic matter and fundamental alterations in the nitrogen cycle. In the latter case, the presence of free molecular oxygen allowed ammonium to be oxidized to nitrate and subsequently denitrified. The interaction between the oxygen and nitrogen cycles in particular led to a negative feedback, in which increased production of oxygen led to decreased fixed inorganic nitrogen in the oceans. This feedback, which is supported by isotopic analyses of fixed nitrogen in sedimentary rocks from the Late Archaean, continues to the present. However, once sufficient oxygen accumulated in Earth's atmosphere to allow nitrification to out-compete denitrification, a new stable electron 'market' emerged in which oxygenic photosynthesis and aerobic respiration ultimately spread via endosymbiotic events and massive lateral gene transfer to eukaryotic host cells, allowing the evolution of complex (i.e. animal) life forms. The resulting network of electron transfers led a gas composition of Earth's atmosphere that is far from thermodynamic equilibrium (i.e. it is an emergent property), yet is relatively stable on geological time scales. The early coevolution of the C, N and O cycles, and the resulting non-equilibrium gaseous by-products can be used as a guide to search for the presence of life on terrestrial planets outside of our Solar System.

PMID:
18487127
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC2606772
Free PMC Article

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