Setting Something Straight / Rectification
Shark Bay Stromatolites
A while back, as you may recall, I made amusing but in some way hurtful remarks about our numerous co-inhabitants of this planet called bacteria. Thanks to Bill Bryson’s bestseller ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ I realized just how much we owe to these nifty little creatures.
In the beginning, in the ancient Archaean world going back as far as 3 billion years, the Earth certainly wouldn’t have suited us. If you were to step from a time machine you would very swiftly scamper back inside, for there was no more oxygen to breathe on the Earth back then than there is on Mars today.
It was also full of noxious acid vapours powerful enough to eat through clothing and blister skin. The chemical stew that was the atmosphere back then would have allowed little sunlight to reach the surface. What little you could see would be illumined only briefly by bright and frequent lightning flashes. In short, it was the Earth, but one we wouldn’t recognize as our own.
Anniversaries were few and far between in this Archaean world. For two billion years bacteria were the only forms of life. They lived, they reproduced, they swarmed, but they didn’t show any particular inclination to move to another, more challenging level of existence but at some point in that first billion years of life, cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, learned to tap into a freely and widely available resource called hydrogen and that exists in spectacular abundance in water. They absorbed water molecules, supped on the hydrogen and released the oxygen as waste. In so doing they invented photosynthesis and produced the air we now all breath in.
They laid the foundations for all living things that came after them.
Photosynthesis is ‘undoubtedly the most important single metabolic innovation in the history of life on this planet’ and it was invented by bacteria and not plants.
As cyanobacteria proliferated the world began to fill with oxygen to the consternation of those organisms that found it poisonous, which in those days was all of them. New oxygen-eating organisms had 2 advantages. It’s a more efficient way to produce energy and it vanquished competitors.
So the next time you hear someone say something nasty about bacteria you know what rub them in their face.
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