How Algae Saved the Planet

The beauty of scientific research is that new data can change the way we look at the world in dramatic ways. The origin of life on Earth will likely never be completely solved but scientists inch every day toward a more full and complete understanding. Now molecular biologists are using their latest research and scientific tools to put an argument forward regarding algae, the ocean, and how the earth was terraformed over 650 million years ago. Now how is that for an interesting way to start your day?

Geochemists have been working diligently in order to put together the data and align the events in order to come to their conclusion. In a thorough argument, which first appeared in ‘Nature’ publication, geochemists and molecular biologists started their research with the Australian desert where trace biomolecules were unearthed. Those are a lot of big scientific buzzwords but this information can be broken down into a relatively easy to follow timeline which sort of shuffles how scientists look at our planet a few hundred million years ago.

Before the Cambrian explosion, by nearly one hundred million years, occurred the “most revolutionary” period in Earth’s history — according to Cambridge paleontologist Nick Butterfield. Butterfield points to this time of terraforming as a great evolution and revolution for our planet. During this period the Earth was seeing huge climate and environmental shifts sometimes in violent ways. As a result, the planet was largely only hospitable to single celled organisms, largely bacteria, including algae. Algae had been in existence for billions of years but their time of great importance was going to be coming.

Unlike dinosaurs algae doesn’t leave a fossil behind but that doesn’t mean that scientists weren’t able to track it down for their timeline. Scientists honed in on looking for molecular components that still existed, focusing on “the most stable thing of any organism”, according to research done by Jochen Brock — fat. Brock’s research, uniquely focused, revealed a number of shocking developments. Brock says, “The signals that we find show that the algal population went up by a factor of a hundred to a thousand and the diversity went right up in one big bang.” This revelation led to an ecological ‘flip’ that helped to melt the ice that covered earth, thus giving rise to the explosive period of growth known as the Cambrian Period. Pretty intense stuff and it remains to be seen if it stands the test of time.