The Great Oxidation Event occured around 2.3 billion years ago, when it was no longer possible for newly created oxygen to be captured in chemical compounds. Instead, it started to accumulate as oxygen in the oceans and in the atmosphere. Before this event, in the Earth's early atmosphere, there were only traces of free oxygen. All life was based exclusively on anaerobic processes - chemical reactions that did not require oxygen. With the emergence of cyanobacteria that oxidized water with the help of light and produced oxygen as a by-product, the conditions for life on Earth gradually began to transform.
New research by scientists at the University of Bristol and Boston University suggests that the evolution of multicellularity coincided with increased diversification of cyanobacteria and the Great Oxidation Event. Cyanobacteria are among the most diverse prokaryotic phyla, with morphotypes ranging from unicellular to multicellular filamentous forms, including those able to irreversibly differentiate in form and function. It has been suggested that cyanobacteria raised oxygen levels in the atmosphere around 2.45–2.32 billion years ago during the Great Oxidation Event and dramatically changing life on the planet.
However, little is known about the possible interplay between the origin of multicellularity, diversification of cyanobacteria, and the rise of atmospheric oxygen. The team tested whether the evolution of multicellularity overlapped with the Great Oxidation, and whether multicellularity is associated with significant shifts in diversification rates in cyanobacteria.
The results indicate an origin of cyanobacteria before the rise of atmospheric oxygen. The evolution of multicellular forms coincided with the onset of the Great Oxidation Event and an increase in diversification rates, suggesting that multicellularity could have played a key role in triggering cyanobacterial evolution. In prior studies, geochemists challenged the simple notion of an up-only trend for early oxygen and provided the first compelling direct evidence for a major drop in oxygen after The Great Oxidation event some, which was critical for the origin and evolution of the first forms of eukaryotic life. The second big step in the up-only hypothesis occurred almost two billion years later, coinciding with the first appearances and earliest diversification of animals.
"Our group is among a subset of scientists who imagine that oxygen, once it began to accumulate in the ocean-atmosphere system, may have ultimately risen to very high levels about 2.3 billion years ago, perhaps even to concentrations close to what we see today," said Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of California Riverside. "But unlike the posited irreversible rise favored by many, our new data point convincingly to an equally impressive, and still not well understood, fall in oxygen about 200 million years later."
This drop in oxygen may have ushered in more than a billion years that were marked by a return to low-oxygen concentrations at Earth's surface, including the likelihood of an oxygen-free deep ocean. "It is this condition that may have set the environmental stage and ultimately the clock for the advance of eukaryotic organisms and eventually animals," he said. Study results appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The time window between 2.3 and 2.1 billion years ago is famous for the largest and longest-lived positive carbon isotope excursion in Earth history," said Noah Planavsky, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech. He explained that carbon isotopes are fractionated during photosynthesis. When organic matter is buried, oxygen is released and rises in the biosphere. The burial of organic matter is tracked by the positive or heavy isotopic composition of carbon in the "Some have attributed the carbon isotope excursion to something other than organic burial and associated release of oxygen," Planavsky said. "We studied the sulfur isotope composition of the same rocks used for the carbon isotope analyses—from Canada, South Africa, the U.S., and Zimbabwe—and demonstrated convincingly that the organic burial model is the best answer."
The researchers' sulfur data point to high sulfate concentrations in the ocean, which, like today, is a classic fingerprint of high oxygen levels in the ocean and atmosphere. Sulfate, the second most abundant negatively charged ion in the ocean today, remains high when the mineral pyrite oxidizes easily on the continents and is buried in relatively small amounts in the oxygen-rich ocean.
"What is equally impressive is that the rise in oxygen was followed by a dramatic fall in sulfate and therefore oxygen," Lyons said. "Why the rise and fall occurred and how that impacted the billion years or more of ocean chemistry that followed and the life within that ocean are hot topics of research."
"The idea that oxygen levels at Earth's surface went up and down must be vital in any effort to understand the links between environmental and biological evolution on broad, geologic time scales," Planavsky concluded.