The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science recently published the study “Archean phosphorus recycling facilitated by ultraviolet radiation.” This study examines how ultraviolet radiation from the early Earth could have helped recycle phosphorus and may have played an important role in the development of life during the Archean period.
The importance of phosphorus for life is undeniable, and recent research has shown us that the role of ultraviolet (UV) light in recycling this essential element may have been significant on the early Earth. Understanding how phosphorus was recycled billions of years ago can give us new insights into the evolution of life on this planet.
The Great Oxidation Event 2.35 billion years ago released oxygen into Earth’s atmosphere, and this made it much easier for organisms to access phosphorus (P). Before this event, however, scientists hypothesized that a ‘phosphorus famine’ may have limited primary productivity in Earth’s oceans due to the difficulty of accessing P.
NASA-supported researchers that UV light could have played an important role in providing enough P to support life in Earth’s early oceans. The study showed that UV light can break down organic phosphorus (P bound up in molecules produced by life, e.g. molecules that contain carbon). This UV-mediated recycling of organic phosphorus could have generated more than enough P to sustain a flourishing biosphere in Earth’s pre-Oxidation Event oceans.
The implications of this study are far-reaching. For one thing, it tells us that our understanding of the mechanisms that fuelled life on the early Earth is still incomplete. It also suggests that other elements, such as nitrogen and sulfur, may also have been recycled by UV light before the Great Oxidation Event occurred.
Finally, this research serves as a reminder that the conditions on Earth today may not always have been ideal for life. We now know that UV light can play an important role in making nutrients like phosphorus available to organisms even when oxygen levels are low. This could be significant for future efforts to find life outside of our own planet – if we can learn how organisms survive in these extreme environments here on Earth, we may be able to detect them elsewhere in the Universe too.