Sunday, August 14, 2005

622: Model Gives Clearer Idea Of How Oxygen Came To Dominate Earth's Atmosphere

Thanks to afarensis, Model Gives Clearer Idea Of How Oxygen Came To Dominate Earth's Atmosphere:

A number of hypotheses have been used to explain how free oxygen first accumulated in Earth's atmosphere some 2.4 billion years ago, but a full understanding has proven elusive. Now a new model offers plausible scenarios for how oxygen came to dominate the atmosphere, and why it took at least 300 million years after bacterial photosynthesis started producing oxygen in large quantities.

The big reason for the long delay was that processes such as volcanic gas production acted as sinks to consume free oxygen before it reached levels high enough to take over the atmosphere, said Mark Claire, a University of Washington doctoral student in astronomy and astrobiology. Free oxygen would combine with gases in a volcanic plume to form new compounds, and that process proved to be a significant oxygen sink, he said.

Another sink was iron delivered to the Earth's outer crust by bombardment from space. Free oxygen was consumed as it oxidized, or rusted, the metal.

But Claire said that just changing the model to reflect different iron content in the outer crust makes a huge difference in when the model shows free oxygen filling the atmosphere. Increasing the actual iron content fivefold would have delayed oxygenation by more than 1 billion years, while cutting iron to one-fifth the actual level would have allowed oxygenation to happen more than 1 billion years earlier.

The work is funded by NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, both of which foster research to understand life in the universe by examining the limits of life on Earth.

"There is interest in this work not just to know how an oxygen atmosphere came about on Earth but to look for oxygen signatures for other Earth-like planets," Claire said.
Research inspired by evolutionary biology.