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Published 2005 | Published
Journal Article Open

Red Earth, White Earth, Green Earth, Black Earth


Oxygen drives the biosphere—we can't live without it. But most scientists now agree that there was no free oxygen in the air during the earliest portion of Earth's history. The first oxygen came from a group of bacteria—the cyanobacteria—that had developed a new method of photosynthesis. Their method was so efficient that they spread rapidly throughout the oceans of the world and overtook their less-efficient predecessors. But their success may have created a catastrophic climate disaster that plunged Earth into a global deep freeze for tens of millions of years and almost wiped out life on the planet forever. That, at least, is a scenario I have developed in collaboration with geobiology grad student Bob Kopp.

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© 2005 California Institute of Technology. This article is adapted from a talk given in May at the 68th Annual Seminar Day. Bob Kopp is the lead author of a paper on this subject that appeared in the August 2005 issue of PNAS, vol. 102, p.11131.

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