Major funding for research on when oxygen first entered Earth’s atmosphere

Photo of Dr. Phil Fralick

December 8, 2016 – Thunder Bay, ON 

A Lakehead University professor is part of a research team receiving more than $2.7 million to explore when oxygen first entered Earth’s environment by examining rocks near Red Lake, Ont. 

The European Research Council has announced the major grant to study Earth’s early ocean and atmosphere.

Funding will be allocated over five years to Dr. Stefan Lalonde, European Institute for Marine Studies, Brest, France, and Dr. Philip Fralick, Department of Geology, Lakehead University, to perform the research. 

Primitive photosynthesizing organisms were responsible for adding oxygen to the planet’s ocean-atmosphere system, but it is unknown when this occurred. 

The study by Drs. Lalonde and Fralick will focus on rocks in the Red Lake area of Northwestern Ontario where 2.93 billion year old limestone, which formed in the ocean, is present. 

Fossil structures in these rocks hint at the presence of photosynthesizing organisms, which this study will more fully investigate. These structures are called stromatolites, and modern ones are built by bacteria that can photosynthesis, but it is unknown whether the very old fossils were also built by photosynthesizing bacterial. 

This study will use the chemistry of the limestone to ascertain if photosynthesis was adding oxygen to the marine environment almost three billion years ago. Knowing when oxygen was first added to the atmosphere on Earth is important as its presence created the largest change to surface conditions since this became a solid planet. 

The presence of oxygen allowed for more complex organisms than bacterial to develop, and thus was critical for the evolution of animals and plants, Dr. Fralick said, adding that he is very excited about the upcoming research project. 

“This funding will allow us to explore when photosynthesis started on our planet, paving the way for the development of multicellular life,” Dr. Fralick said. “It also validates the level of research that is being conducted by Dr. Lalonde’s group at Brest and here at Lakehead.”

Dr. Andrew P. Dean, Lakehead’s Vice-President, Research and Innovation, said this is more great news for Lakehead. 

“Lakehead was recently named research university of the year for the second year in a row – and this is another example of the exciting research being conducted at the University,” Dr. Dean said. “Thank you to Drs. Fralick and Lalonde for all of their work, and thanks to the European Research Council for recognizing the importance of this research.”

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