There is evidence that some microbial life had migrated from the Earth’s oceans to land by 2.75 billion years ago, though many scientists believe such land-based life was limited because the ozone layer that shields against ultraviolet radiation did not form until hundreds of millions years later.
But new research from the University of Washington suggests that early microbes might have been widespread on land, producing oxygen and weathering pyrite, an iron sulfide mineral, which released sulfur and molybdenum into the oceans. Sulfur could have been released into sea water by other processes, including volcanic activity. But evidence that molybdenum was being released at the same time suggests that both substances were being liberated as bacteria slowly disintegrated continental rocks. If that is the case, it likely means the land-based microbes were producing oxygen well in advance of what geologists refer to as the “Great Oxidation Event” about 2.4 billion years ago that initiated the oxygen-rich atmosphere that fostered life as we know it. In fact, the added sulfur might have allowed marine microbes to consume methane, which could have set the stage for atmospheric oxygenation. Before that occurred, it is likely large amounts of oxygen were destroyed by reacting with methane that rose from the ocean into the air.