Some 4.5 billion years ago, soon after the Earth and its atmosphere formed, atmospheric gases energized by solar ultraviolet radiation and atmospheric lightning formed the key molecules needed for the synthesis of amino acids, the building blocks of all living systems. The process of forming complex organic molecules from simple atmospheric gases is termed “chemical evolution.” In the early oceans of our planet, which offered protection from the biologically lethal ultraviolet radiation emitted by the Sun, the amino acids and other complex organic molecules combined chemically to form the first living systems. Protected by the early oceans, the first living systems developed, evolved, and increased in numbers. One group of early organisms developed the ability to synthesize carbohydrates used for food through the biochemical process of photosynthesis. During this process, a gaseous byproduct was given off—oxygen. Prior to this important evolutionary development, the early atmosphere contained little or no oxygen. Beginning about 3.5 billion years ago, photosynthetic oxygen began to accumulate in the atmosphere. About 600 million years ago, atmospheric oxygen evolved to about one-tenth of its present atmospheric level, which is about 21% by volume. This was a very significant milestone in the history of life. At this level of oxygen, natural atmospheric chemical reactions produced enough ozone (O3) from the oxygen (O2) to shield the surface of our planet from biologically lethal solar ultraviolet radiation.


Water Vapor Nitrous Oxide Greenhouse Effect World Meteorological Organization Incoming Solar Radiation 
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© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1992

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  • Joel S. Levine

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