Facts About Oxygen

Oxygen, a colorless gas that is oftentimes referred to as Element Number 8 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is the most reactive gas of the non-metallic elements and comprises about 21% of the Earth’s atmosphere.

According to a study funded by NASA, oxygen has been here on the earth for approximately 2.3-2.4 billion years, and it initially came into existence 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 that geologic changes on the earth played a large role in the process.

Oxygen has the atomic number 8, the atomic symbol O, and an atomic weight of 15.9994. As reported by the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe. Organisms that require oxygen to breathe, called cyanobacteria, use the process of photosynthesis to breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, in the same way as modern-day plants. It is assumed that cyanobacteria are responsible for oxygen first appearing in the atmosphere, which is an event referred to as the Great Oxidation Event.

The photosynthesis of cyanobacteria was most likely taking place long before a prominent amount of oxygen was accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere. A report published in the journal Nature Geoscience in 2014 stated that oxygen created from photosynthesis started in marine environments approximately half a billion years ago prior to its initial atmospheric accumulation about 2.5 billion years ago.

While the organisms on modern-day Earth rely heavily on oxygen, the first accumulation of this element in the atmosphere was considerably detrimental. The change in the atmosphere caused a mass extinction of organisms that do not require oxygen, known as anaerobes. These anaerobes that did not have the ability to survive in environments with oxygen began to die off.

The initial indication to humans that oxygen existed in the atmosphere happened in 1608, when Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch inventor, found that heating potassium nitrate led to the release of a gas. That gas remained unidentified until the 1770s, when [[three chemists began to uncover it around the same time. Joseph Priestly, an English chemist was able to isolate oxygen through the process of shining sunlight on mercuric oxide and then collecting the gas that was generated as a result of the reaction. Preistly published this discovery in 1774, which led him to be 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 experienced 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 oxygen’s structure 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 gave more insight about the process of nuclei formation in stars.

Another group of researchers placed a heavy emphasis on finding oxygen’s role in life on Earth. According to researchers at the University of Southern Denmark, animal life appeared long after the Great Oxidation Event, with simple animals appearing just around 600 million years ago. Although many people assume that the appearance of oxygen caused the existence of animals, animals were actually not present on Earth during the initial significant increase of oxygen levels in the atmosphere. [[On the contrary|Contrarily|On the other hand], it is most commonly believed that something other than the appearance of oxygen led to the first increase in animal life. While it is possible that rising levels of oxygen caused varied and diversified ecosystems that are around 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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