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Revolutions that made the Earth$
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Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199587049

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199587049.001.0001

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The trial of the oxygen poisoners

The trial of the oxygen poisoners

(p.165) 9 The trial of the oxygen poisoners
Revolutions that made the Earth

Tim Lenton

Andrew Watson

Oxford University Press

This chapter aims to trace the origins of oxygenic photosynthesis (OP) in an effort to determine whether it really constitutes an improbable, ‘critical’ step that could easily never have happened at all. The OP organisms stand accused of poisoning much of the rest of the biosphere with their by-product, oxygen. The pre-existing organisms had evolved in an oxygen-free world and could not tolerate its toxic side effects – they were ‘obligate anaerobes’. Subjected to indiscriminate ‘bacteriacide’, they lost their place in the sun with the coming of oxygen. This is comparable to a criminal trial, and it is our task to use forensic evidence to say when this crime occurred. In this case, examining the rock record really is like investigating the scene of a long-forgotten crime, a cold case where the action took place billions of years ago, and the intervening eons have wiped away most of the evidence.

Keywords:   oxygenic photosynthesis, pre-existing organisms, oxygen-free world

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