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Did phosphorus trigger complex evolution -- and blue skies?
Date:5/10/2010

Washington, D.C. The evolution of complex life forms may have gotten a jump start billions of years ago, when geologic events operating over millions of years caused large quantities of phosphorus to wash into the oceans. According to this model, proposed in a new paper by Dominic Papineau of the Carnegie Institution for Science, the higher levels of phosphorus would have caused vast algal blooms, pumping extra oxygen into the environment which allowed larger, more complex types of organisms to thrive.

"Phosphate rocks formed only sporadically during geologic history," says Papineau, a researcher at Carnegie's Geophysical Laboratory, "and it is striking that their occurrences coincided with major global biogeochemical changes as well as significant leaps in biological evolution."

In his study, published in the journal Astrobiology, Papineau focused on the phosphate deposits that formed during an interval of geologic time known as the Proterozoic, from 2.5 billion years ago to about 540 million years ago. "This time period is very critical in the history of the Earth, because there are several independent lines of evidence that show that oxygen really increased during its beginning and end," says Papineau. The previous atmosphere was possibly methane-rich, which would have given the sky an orangish color. "So this is the time that the sky literally began to become blue."

During the Proterozoic, oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose in two phases: first ranging from 2.5 to 2 billion years ago, called the Great Oxidation Event, when atmospheric oxygen rose from trace amounts to about 10% of the present-day value. Single-celled organisms grew larger during this time and acquired cell structures called mitochondria, the so-called "powerhouses" of cells, which burn oxygen to yield energy. The second phase of oxygen rise occurred between about 1 billion and 540 million years ago and brought oxygen levels to near present levels. This
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Contact: Dominic Papineau
dpapineau@ciw.edu
202-478-8908
Carnegie Institution
Source:Eurekalert

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