Medical Microfiction: Anoxia

“Name That Extinction Event”

The researcher marveled at her discovery. It was all so elegant. The equation made perfect sense. Water plus carbon dioxide–in conjunction with sunlight–would yield all the food they needed. World hunger would end overnight. One simple gene splice and everyone could make their own food on demand.

Her colleague tapped the end of the equation. “There’s a problem. The food will be infinite, yes, and practically free. But what about this byproduct? Technically it’s poisonous, and it could lead to global cooling.”

The researcher waved him off. “Oh, I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere won’t hurt anyone.”

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Cyanobacteria
Cyanobacteria (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Did you guess The Great Oxygenation Event? If so, you’re right!

“Anoxia” means a lack of oxygen. Medically, this could mean a lack of oxygen in the blood, brain, or in the muscles. If you rely on aerobic respiration (which, if you’re human, you do), then anoxia is a Very Bad Thing. But lots of creatures out there feel the same way about oxygen as we do about carbon dioxide or methane. Hidden away in the most extreme environments on Earth, we find these extremophiles, creatures that thrive under conditions that seem hostile to life. For example,  anaerobic bacteria that live in our bowels are responsible for the, ahem, methane we expel.

These anaerobes used to rule the world. Back in the day, the Earth’s atmosphere contained practically no oxygen and tons of methane. Like carbon dioxide, methane’s a greenhouse gas, but it retains even more heat than carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide’s a light jacket, then methane’s a parka. This really wasn’t a problem for the extremophiles since they thrived in these conditions.

AIRS maps the distribution of carbon dioxide i...
AIRS maps the distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enter some enterprising cyanobacteria. These little guys pioneered the art of photosynthesis, harvesting the power of the sun to make food. As the cyanobacteria pumped out oxygen like a boss, the methane in the atmosphere converted to carbon dioxide, and gradually the oxygen levels rose as well, causing a drop in global temperatures. These conditions led to global freezing and mass extinction of many forms of anaerobic life.

If cyanobacteria were sentient, you have to wonder if they’d think about the ramifications of inventing photosynthesis. Would they believe their small actions could have such a big impact on the world? Would they hold debates on climate change and weigh the benefits against the costs? Would they have any pity or regret for driving the anaerobes to such hard times, in some cases literally living in crap for survival?

But I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere isn’t going to hurt anyone.

In the wake of last week’s historic high benchmark of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this is worth thinking about. What questions should shape our ethic for how we treat our environment?

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4 thoughts on “Medical Microfiction: Anoxia

    1. Good question, David.

      During the Great Oxygenation Event, the cyanobacteria filled the atmosphere with a gas that, once it reached a tipping point, caused radical climate change and a resulting extinction the world over. Right now, we humans are also filling the atmosphere with a gas that, once it hits its tipping point, will also result in mass extinction from the resulting climate change (in addition to things like habitat loss and changing acidity of the oceans).

      It’s not really a perfect analogy. Cyanobacteria aren’t sentient, and there’s a difference between innate photosynthesis you need to stay alive and our use of fossil fuels to fuel our industrial lifestyles. I mainly wrote this in response to comments I’ve heard along the lines of, “Carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere; what’s the harm in a little more being present?” and “It’s hubris for us humans to think that we can change the climate. Our actions are quite small on a global scale, and these things are cyclical.” Oxygen’s natural, and cyanobacteria are extremely small, and yet their combined actions changed the world in a way that was devastating for most life on Earth at the time.

      Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, extinction’s morally neutral. If we change the climate and kill off most of the species around, then I’m sure the decomposers and extremophiles will come out of hiding and have a field day. But if we agree that we like the current status quo where bacteria don’t completely rule the earth, it’s good to think about this stuff and see what we can do to prevent the worst.

  1. We should really think about how we, humans, are causing additional carbon dioxide in our environment.

    For one, we burn cars that give off additional carbon dioxide; however, that can be a bit difficult to stop due to what kind of car everyone drives and owns. Sure, I give dirty looks when someone is driving an old beat up grease monkey car, BUT that might be the only car in their possession. In other words, they may not be able to afford another car.

    Just like some of us who buy a new car…cannot afford one that might put off less emissions in the air. I suppose my point is that….there is a political and social issue concerning how the environment is affected as well.

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