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Oxygen

The Molecule That Made the World

By Nick Lane
13-minute read
Audio available
Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World by Nick Lane

Oxygen (2002) is a guide to the element that is so essential to our very existence that we sometimes forget it even exists. These blinks explain how oxygen enables and boosts life on earth while simultaneously threatening it.

  • Anybody fascinated by the evolution of life on Earth
  • Anyone interested in biology, chemistry or physics

Dr. Nick Lane studied biochemistry at Imperial College London and is an Honorary Reader at University College London. He is the author of Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life and Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.

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Oxygen

The Molecule That Made the World

By Nick Lane
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World by Nick Lane
Synopsis

Oxygen (2002) is a guide to the element that is so essential to our very existence that we sometimes forget it even exists. These blinks explain how oxygen enables and boosts life on earth while simultaneously threatening it.

Key idea 1 of 8

Oxygen is essential to life on earth, but it’s also a deadly toxin.

Everyone knows how important oxygen is. After all, without it, we’d all be dead in a matter of minutes. But oxygen serves important functions beyond just respiration.

While oxygen has played an essential role in sustaining life on earth for millennia, it hasn't always been such a ubiquitous element. For instance, about four billion years ago, the planet’s atmosphere contained barely any oxygen at all. But today, our air is about 21 percent oxygen.

So where did it all come from?

The answer is photosynthesis, the process through which plants use sunlight to split water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. While solar energy can also break apart water molecules, doing so without photosynthesis was actually a threat to the early life forms that developed in the oceans.

How so? Well, while hydrogen is a light gas that can escape the planet’s gravity, oxygen is much heavier and remains in the atmosphere. So, without hydrogen to bond with, these free oxygen molecules bonded with iron and entered the oceans instead of staying in the atmosphere. The result was a net loss of water as hydrogen left the atmosphere, offering fewer chances for oxygen and hydrogen to combine and become water.

But that all changed with photosynthesis. This process produced oxygen in such abundance it accumulated in the atmosphere where it bonded with hydrogen, forming more water. Essentially, atmospheric oxygen halted the planet’s rapid water depletion, helping ocean life evolve.

However, oxygen also threatened life on earth. While it is the essence of life for humans, for the tiny organisms that preceded us, oxygen was a lethal gas. In fact, most organisms alive today can only tolerate oxygen because they have antioxidants. These chemicals prevent the cell-damaging process of oxidation, wherein oxygen breaks electrons away from organic molecules, causing them to disintegrate. Since early life forms didn’t have antioxidants, oxygen was a death sentence for them.

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