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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Aug 27;363(1504):2731-43. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0041.

When did oxygenic photosynthesis evolve?

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Department of Earth and Space Science and Astrobiology Program, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-1310, USA. <>


The atmosphere has apparently been oxygenated since the 'Great Oxidation Event' ca 2.4 Ga ago, but when the photosynthetic oxygen production began is debatable. However, geological and geochemical evidence from older sedimentary rocks indicates that oxygenic photosynthesis evolved well before this oxygenation event. Fluid-inclusion oils in ca 2.45 Ga sandstones contain hydrocarbon biomarkers evidently sourced from similarly ancient kerogen, preserved without subsequent contamination, and derived from organisms producing and requiring molecular oxygen. Mo and Re abundances and sulphur isotope systematics of slightly older (2.5 Ga) kerogenous shales record a transient pulse of atmospheric oxygen. As early as ca 2.7 Ga, stromatolites and biomarkers from evaporative lake sediments deficient in exogenous reducing power strongly imply that oxygen-producing cyanobacteria had already evolved. Even at ca 3.2 Ga, thick and widespread kerogenous shales are consistent with aerobic photoautrophic marine plankton, and U-Pb data from ca 3.8 Ga metasediments suggest that this metabolism could have arisen by the start of the geological record. Hence, the hypothesis that oxygenic photosynthesis evolved well before the atmosphere became permanently oxygenated seems well supported.

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