Facts About Oxygen

Oxygen, a colorless gas that is sometimes known as Element Number 8 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is the most reactive out of the non-metallic elements and exists at atmospheric levels at about 21%.

According to a study funded by NASA, oxygen has existed on the earth for around 2.3-2.4 billion years, and it began to appear in our atmosphere at least 2.5 billion years ago. While it is not entirely clear why oxygen quickly became such a significant element in the Earth’s atmosphere, but many assume it was a result of several geologic changes that took place on Earth.

Oxygen has the atomic number 8, the atomic symbol O, and an atomic weight of 15.9994. As stated by the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe. Organisms that use oxygen to breathe, called cyanobacteria, use the process of photosynthesis to breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, similar to what is done by modern-day plants. It is probable that cyanobacteria are responsible for oxygen first appearing in the atmosphere, which is an occurance often called the Great Oxidation Event.

The photosynthesis of cyanobacteria was probably occurring long before a significant amount of oxygen was accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere. A report published in the journal Nature Geoscience in 2014 stated that oxygen generated from photosynthesis began in marine environments about half a billion years ago prior to it beginning to accumulate in the atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago.

While those living on earth today are very dependent on oxygen, the beginning accumulation of this element in the atmosphere was somewhat disastrous. The change in the atmosphere led to a mass extinction of organisms that do not require oxygen, known as anaerobes. These anaerobes that could not survive in environments with oxygen began to slowly to die off.

The initial signal to humans that oxygen was present in the atmosphere happened in 1608, when Cornelius Drebbel, an inventor from the Netherlands, came to the conclusion that heating potassium nitrate caused the release of a gas. That gas was unidentified until the 1770s, when [[three chemists began to study it around the same time. Joseph Priestly, an English chemist was able to isolate oxygen by using sunlight to shine light on mercuric oxide and then collecting the gas that was generated as a result of the reaction. Preistly published this discovery in 1774, making him the first scientist to actually publish these findings about oxygen. Oxygen was given its name from the Greek words “oxy” nucleus and “genes,” which together mean “acid-forming.”

While the presence of too little oxygen can pose a threat, so can the presence of too much oxygen. For example, around 300 million years ago, the earth had atmospheric oxygen levels of 35% and insects grew to extreme sizes.

Oxygen is produced through the fusion of a carbon-12 and a helium-4 inside the hearts of stars. However, recently, scientists have gained the ability to study the structure of oxygen by looking at its nucleus. And in March of 2014, a physicist at North Carolina State University and his colleagues discovered the nuclear structure of oxygen-16. This is important because it helped us learn more about the process of nuclei formation in stars.

A different team of researchers spent their time studying oxygen’s role in life on Earth. According to researchers at the University of Southern Denmark, animal life did not appear on Earth until much later than the Great Oxidation Event, with simple animals being found just around 600 million years ago. Although many people predict that the presense of oxygen resulted in the existence of animals, animals were actually not existing on Earth during the first prominent appearance of oxygen levels in the atmosphere. [[On the contrary|Contrarily|On the other hand], it is probably that that something other than the appearance of oxygen led to the first rise in animal life. While it could very well be that increasing levels of oxygen caused varied and diversified ecosystems that exist today, there are still many modern-day animals that are able to live in extremely low-oxygen areas in the ocean.

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