A new study shows that iron-bearing rocks that formed at the ocean floor 3.2 billion years ago carry unmistakable evidence of oxygen. The only logical source for that oxygen is the earliest known example of photosynthesis by living organisms, say University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscientists.
"Rock from 3.4 billion years ago showed that the ocean contained basically no free oxygen," says Clark Johnson, professor of geoscience at UW-Madison and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "Recent work has shown a small rise in oxygen at 3 billion years. The rocks we studied are 3.23 billion years old, and quite well preserved, and we believe they show definite signs for oxygen in the oceans much earlier than previous discoveries."
The most reasonable candidate for liberating the oxygen found in the iron oxide is cyanobacteria, primitive photosynthetic organisms that lived in the ancient ocean. The earliest evidence for life now dates back 3.5 billion years, so oxygenic photosynthesis could have evolved relatively soon after life itself.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom in geology held that oxygen was rare until the "great oxygenation event," 2.4 to 2.2 billion years ago.
The rocks under study, called jasper, made of iron oxide and quartz, show regular striations caused by composition changes in the sediment that formed them. To detect oxygen, the UW-Madison scientists measured iron isotopes with a sophisticated mass spectrometer, hoping to determine how much oxygen was needed to form the iron oxides.