A Few Thoughts on Oxygen – Part 1

Until late in the 20th century scientists hypothesized that the earth’s early atmosphere was highly reduced, in a chemical sense. What atmospheric elements were present were bonded to hydrogen. This followed from the well-known fact that hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe . Hence, other elements were more likely to be chemically attached to Hydrogen than anything else. Any carbon would be present as methane CH4, nitrogen would be present as ammonia NH3 and oxygen in the form of water OH2.

Scientists in the early 1950s (Stanley Miller-Urey) used this assumption in experiments looking for mechanisms for the beginning of life. They created an atmosphere composed of these reduced gasses and then induced chemical reactions among them using UV light (which would have been abundant ) and/ or Electric arc (simulating lightning.) They found that the could produce several “life precursor” molecules such as amino acids (to form protein), purine and pyrimidines (to form nucleic acids), and simple sugars (to form carbohydrates.)

I gave many a lecture discussing the Miller-Urey experiments, which with current understanding of what the early atmosphere was like, were wrong. Evolution of life most likely required the same simple precursors to be present but they must have come about by other mechanisms. The current wisdom as to the composition of the early atmosphere suggests in was more in line with the composition of volcanic gasses. This is based on more recent geochemical studies. Carbon would have been present in its oxidized form, CO2. Nitrogen would have been present as the diatomic gas N2, sulfur as SO3.

The only feature of the previously assumed early atmosphere and the current hypothesis is that the presence of any free oxygen (O2) was very limited, maybe a fraction of one percent of the total atmosphere. Currently it is about 21 percent.

Regardless of the competing hypotheses about the composition of the atmosphere life most likely began and then evolved in the absence of any significant amount of Oxygen for a couple of billion years. Because of the specificity of the genetic code it has always been assumed that all life is related and the earliest ancestor of all life is called LUCA – the Last Universal Common Ancestor.

What did LUCA look like? How did she make a living? Surely she was a single celled organism replicating by cell fission. Information from mother to daughter cell was transmitted by DNA replication, so the enzymes attendant to this task are shared by all her descendants. She had to have been an anaerobe as there was scant oxygen in the atmosphere at the time. What about the other cell machinery?

When certain components of cellular machinery are found across all life, it must be that LUCA had these components. Oddly, for an anaerobe, LUCA appears to have had a broad range of macromolecular structures which are for handling oxygen. What is that all about?

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