Oxygen may have filled Earth's atmosphere hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought, suggesting that sunlight-dependent life akin to modern plants evolved very early in Earth's history, a new study finds.
The findings, detailed in the Sept. 26 issue of the journal Nature,have implications for extraterrestrial life as well, hinting that oxygen-generating life could arise very early in a planet's history and potentially suggesting even more worlds could be inhabited around the universe than previously thought, the study's authors said.
It was once widely assumed that oxygen levels remained low in the atmosphere for about the first 2 billion years of Earth's 4.5-billion-year history. Scientists thought the first time oxygen suffused the atmosphere for any major length of time was about 2.3 billion years ago in what is called the Great Oxidation Event. This jump in oxygen levels was almost certainly due to cyanobacteria — microbes that, like plants, photosynthesize and exhale oxygen.
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