Oxygen | Nick Lane

Summary of: Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World
By: Nick Lane


Embark on a fascinating journey into the world of oxygen in Nick Lane’s ‘Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World’. This summary delves into the history and role of oxygen in our planet’s development, the evolution of life, and its impact on the growth of early organisms. Discover the intricate and delicate balance that oxygen maintains as a necessity for life, while also posing threats to it through oxidation and toxicity. Uncover how oxygen has shaped our atmosphere, influenced multicellular life, and fostered the creation of antioxidants.

The Evolution of Oxygen

Oxygen, essential to life on earth, was not always present in the atmosphere. The process of photosynthesis allowed for the production of oxygen and bonding with hydrogen to form water, leading to the evolution of ocean life. However, oxygen also posed a threat to early life forms as it was a lethal gas without antioxidants.

The Role of Oxygen in the Evolution of Life

Life evolved in response to oxygen. Single-cell organisms, aversive of oxygen, formed a single mass when forced to inhabit an oxygen-rich environment. This could explain the creation of multicellular organisms. The Cambrian explosion, a period of increasing oxygen levels about 500 million years ago, created most of the life forms that inhabit the planet. Before this era, the planet experienced a severe ice age, and the only survivors were tiny cells that photosynthesized and produced oxygen. When the earth warmed again, the survivors, alone on a planet rich in minerals and nutrients, multiplied rapidly and produced massive quantities of oxygen. These are the origins of the rise of multicellular life.

Oxygen and Giant Creatures

During the Carboniferous period, giant creatures such as dragonflies and scorpions thrived due to an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Scientists found that dragonflies can fly more easily in such air, explaining the existence of larger species. Organic material buried during that time allowed for geochemists to determine that oxygen levels reached up to 35% of the atmosphere.

Marie Curie’s Deadly Discovery

Marie Curie’s discovery of radiation led to her death from leukemia. But, did you know that radiation and oxygen poisoning cause the same biological damage? Both processes break water into hydrogen and oxygen, producing toxic intermediates like the hydroxyl radical. Breathing is a slow version of oxygen poisoning, identical to the basic effect of radiation.

Interestingly, solar radiation could have launched the development of photosynthesis, which allowed for life on earth. The toxic intermediates produced by splitting water in photosynthesis spurred the development of the antioxidant catalase, which now exists in every living creature. It’s likely that catalase led to photosynthesis, and not the other way around.

To protect cells from these toxic intermediates in photosynthesis, they use catalase, enabling them to produce energy by splitting water without any damage. Curie’s discovery may have had fatal consequences, but it ultimately contributed to further understanding of fundamental biological processes.

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