For most terrestrial life on Earth, oxygen is necessary for survival. But the planet's atmosphere did not always contain this life-sustaining substance, and one of science's greatest mysteries is how and when oxygenic photosynthesis—the process responsible for producing oxygen on Earth through the splitting of water molecules—first began. Now, a team led by geobiologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has found evidence of a precursor photosystem involving manganese that predates cyanobacteria, the first group of organisms to release oxygen into the environment via photosynthesis.
The findings, outlined in the June 24, 2013, early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), strongly support the idea that manganese oxidation—which, despite the name, is a chemical reaction that does not have to involve oxygen—provided an evolutionary stepping-stone for the development of water-oxidizing photosynthesis in cyanobacteria.
"Water-oxidizing or water-splitting photosynthesis was invented by cyanobacteria approximately 2.4 billion years ago and then borrowed by other groups of organisms thereafter," explains Woodward Fischer, assistant professor of geobiology at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. "Algae borrowed this photosynthetic system from cyanobacteria, and plants are just a group of algae that took photosynthesis on land, so we think with this finding we're looking at the inception of the molecular machinery that would give rise to oxygen."
Photosynthesis is the process by which energy from the sun is used by plants and other organisms to split water and carbon dioxide molecules to make carbohydrates and oxygen. Manganese is required for water splitting to work, so when scientists began to wonder what evolutionary steps may have led up to an oxygenated atmosphere on Earth, they started to look for evidence of manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis prior to cyanobacteria. Since oxidation simply involves the transfer of electrons to increase the charge on an atom—and this can be accomplished using light or O2—it could have occurred before the rise of oxygen on this planet.