A resurrected gene, brought back from the dead in the lab, is allowing molecular biologists to travel billions of years into the past to study one of the most significant transitions in Earth’s history.
About 2.5 billion years ago, oxygen began to build up in Earth’s previously anoxic atmosphere as a result of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria and other microbes. This Great Oxygenation Event must have caused an ecological upheaval, because oxygen is such a reactive molecule.
To understand more about this key point in evolution, evolutionary biologist Betül Kacar at Harvard University decided to reconstruct the ancient form of rubisco, the key enzyme in photosynthesis that converts carbon dioxide into the precursors of sugars. Rubisco has been called the most abundant protein on Earth, and its history dates back to the dawn of photosynthesis more than 3 billion years ago.
Rubisco changed much more quickly around the time of the Great Oxygenation than it did either before or after it, Kacar said last week at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Mesa, Arizona.
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