"Rocks contain fingerprint-like clues to the past environment through specific variations in elements such as sulfur," explained Carnegie researcher Shuhei Ono.1 "Our Earth didn't start out with oxygen in the atmosphere. It probably contained methane and hydrogen, but no oxygen. We think that there were microbes in the oceans, before the oxygenated atmosphere, which would have used methane for energy. Measuring sulfur isotopes--different versions of the atom with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons--in rock samples provides a sensitive way to monitor ancient oxygen levels. Oxygen first appeared on the surface of the Earth when microbes developed the capacity to split water molecules to produce O2 using the Sun's energy. This is a bit advanced biochemistry, but we think this biological revolution emerged sometime before 2.7 billion years ago," he continued.
Ono looked at sulfur isotopes from South African drill-core samples covering the time interval from 3.2 to 2.4 billion years ago. Around 2.9 billion years ago, the methane-dominated atmosphere provided a greenhouse effect and kept the planet warm. His analysis suggests that when oxygen first appeared in the atmosphere, around that time, it would have reacted with the methane, destabilizing the atmosphere and triggering th
Contact: Shuhei Ono