The Surprising Role of Sulfate: Revealing the Catalyst for Life

by Amir Hussein

A recent study has uncovered a significant factor in explaining the oxygen-rich atmosphere that distinguishes Earth and the subsequent development of animal life on our planet.

Led by a distinguished researcher from The University of Western Australia and published in the esteemed journal Nature, this groundbreaking study sheds light on the reasons why oxygen levels remained insufficient for animal respiration for nearly 90% of Earth’s history.

During an event known as the Shuram Excursion, which took place approximately 570 to 550 million years ago, a crucial milestone in the evolution of animal life occurred. It was believed that this event involved a substantial release of carbon dioxide and oxygen into the atmosphere and oceans, triggered by rising ocean phosphorus levels.

To examine this theory, the researchers employed an innovative tool to trace the abundance of phosphorus in the ancient oceans, analyzing data from six locations across Australia, China, Mexico, and the United States.

The findings, coupled with a comprehensive Earth chemistry model, unveiled that the rise in oxygen levels could not be accounted for solely by increasing ocean phosphorus levels. Instead, the model demonstrated that the effect could be replicated when substantial quantities of sulfate rock were weathered, releasing sulfate into the oceans and generating vast amounts of oxygen.

Dr. Matthew Dodd, the lead author and a distinguished researcher from the UWA School of Earth Sciences, emphasized that sulfate, rather than phosphorus, played a pivotal role in oxygenating the planet during the critical phase of complex life’s evolution. He stated, “Our findings offer an explanation for the prolonged periods of low oxygen throughout Earth’s history, which consequently delayed the emergence of animal life. Importantly, we observed that during the Shuram Excursion, when oxygen levels were low, ocean phosphorus levels were predominantly low as well. This phenomenon would have maintained the early oceans and atmosphere in an oxygen-depleted state.”

The study’s data also carries implications for the potential existence of intelligent life on other planets.

Dr. Dodd remarked, “These results suggest that other potentially habitable planets may support complex intelligent life only if given an extended period for development. This implies that planets orbiting larger stars than the Sun might not give rise to complex intelligent life due to the relatively short lifespan of such stars.”

Reference: “Uncovering the Ediacaran phosphorus cycle” by Matthew S. Dodd, Wei Shi, Chao Li, Zihu Zhang, Meng Cheng, Haodong Gu, Dalton S. Hardisty, Sean J. Loyd, Malcolm W. Wallace, Ashleigh vS. Hood, Kelsey Lamothe, Benjamin J. W. Mills, Simon W. Poulton, and Timothy W. Lyons, 31 May 2023, Nature. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06077-6

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about oxygenation

What does the study reveal about Earth’s oxygenation and animal life evolution?

The study reveals that the weathering of sulfate rocks, rather than increasing ocean phosphorus levels, played a crucial role in oxygenating Earth’s atmosphere and influencing the late evolution of animal life.

How was the study conducted?

The researchers used a newly developed tool to track phosphorus abundance in the ancient oceans across multiple locations. They also utilized an Earth chemistry model to analyze the data and understand the factors contributing to the rise of oxygen levels.

What was the significance of the Shuram Excursion?

The Shuram Excursion, which occurred between 570 and 550 million years ago, marked a major evolutionary event for animal life. It was believed to involve the release of carbon dioxide and oxygen into the atmosphere and oceans due to increasing ocean phosphorus levels.

What role did sulfate play in the oxygenation process?

The study indicates that sulfate, released through the weathering of sulfate rocks, was the main control in oxygenating the planet during the first major evolution of complex life. Sulfate release led to the production of vast amounts of oxygen in the oceans.

What implications does this study have for the existence of intelligent life on other planets?

The study suggests that other potentially habitable planets may support complex intelligent life only if given longer incubation times. It also raises the possibility that planets orbiting larger stars than the Sun may not develop complex intelligent life due to the shorter lifespan of such stars.

More about oxygenation

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Emma Thompson June 24, 2023 - 10:31 am

fascinating research! it reveals the role of sulfate in oxygenation. and the Shuram Excursion event was a turning point for animal life. really makes you think about possibilities for life on other planets too. incredible stuff!

Jane Doe June 24, 2023 - 10:51 am

omg this study is so cool!! it shows that sulfate rocks instead of ocean phosphorus were key to oxygenation and animal life evolution. mind = blown! what if there’s intelligent life on other planets too? sooo fascinating!

Sarah Adams June 24, 2023 - 2:36 pm

this study is mind-boggling! sulfate rocks played a bigger role in oxygenation than we thought. and the Shuram Excursion event was a game-changer. makes you wonder about intelligent life on other planets. so cool!

John Smith June 24, 2023 - 3:56 pm

study found sulfate rocks were imp for oxygenation & animal life evolution, not phosphorus. wow! shows importance of longer incubation times for complex intelligent life on other planets! stars size matters!

David Wilson June 24, 2023 - 9:16 pm

whoa, mind-blowing study! it says sulfate rocks, not ocean phosphorus, was crucial for oxygen & animal evolution. crazy! and it raises questions about intelligent life on other planets. mind = officially blown!


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