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History of the Earth

Geological time put in a diagram called a geological clock, showing the relative lengths of the eons of the Earth's history
The history of the Earth describes the most important events and fundamental stages in the development of the planet Earth from its formation 4.54 billion years ago to the present day.[1] Nearly all branches of natural science have contributed to the understanding of the main events of the Earth's past. The age of Earth is approximately one-third of the age of the universe.[2] Immense geological and biological changes have occurred during that time span. See the headings of the Table of Contents below for a summary of the eons of Earth's history.

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Ga: Life


The replicator in virtually all known life is deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is far more complex than the original replicator and its replication systems are highly elaborate.
The details of the origin of life are unknown, but the basic principles have been established. There are two schools of thought about the origin of life. One suggests that organic components arrived on Earth from space (see “Panspermia”), while the other argues that they originated on Earth. Nevertheless, both schools suggest similar mechanisms by which life initially arose.[29]
If life arose on Earth, the timing of this event is highly speculative—perhaps it arose around 4 Ga.[30] It is possible that, as a result of repeated formation and destruction of oceans during that time period caused by high energy asteroid bombardment, life may have arisen and been extinguished more than once.[4]
In the energetic chemistry of early Earth, a molecule gained the ability to make copies of itself — a replicator. (More accurately, it promoted the chemical reactions which produced a copy of itself.) The replication was not always accurate: some copies were slightly different from their parent.
If the change destroyed the copying ability of the molecule, the molecule did not produce any copies, and the line “died out”. On the other hand, a few rare changes might have made the molecule replicate faster or better: those “strains” would become more numerous and “successful”. This is an early example of evolution on abiotic material. The variations present in matter and molecules combined with the universal tendency for systems to move towards a lower energy state allowed for an early method of natural selection. As choice raw materials (“food”) became depleted, strains which could utilize different materials, or perhaps halt the development of other strains and steal their resources, became more numerous.[31]:563-578
The nature of the first replicator is unknown because its function was long since superseded by life’s current replicator, DNA. Several models have been proposed explaining how a replicator might have developed. Different replicators have been posited, including organic chemicals such as modern proteins, nucleic acids, phospholipids, crystals,[32] or even quantum systems.[33] There is currently no way to determine whether any of these models closely fits the origin of life on Earth.

Certain molecules could speed up a chemical reaction. All this continued for a long time, with reactions occurring at random, until by chance it produced a replicator molecule. In any case, at some point, the function of the replicator was superseded by DNA; all known life (except some viruses and prions) use DNA as their replicator, in an almost identical manner (see Genetic code).
A small section of a cell membrane. This modern cell membrane is far more sophisticated than the original simple phospholipid bilayer (the small blue spheres with two tails). Proteins and carbohydrates serve various functions in regulating the passage of material through the membrane and in reacting to the environment.
Modern life has its replicating material packaged inside a cellular membrane. It is easier to understand the origin of the cell membrane than the origin of the replicator, because a cell membrane is made of phospholipid molecules, which often form a bilayer spontaneously when placed in water. Under certain conditions, many such spheres can be formed (see “The bubble theory”).[34]:40
The prevailing theory is that the membrane formed after the replicator, which perhaps by then was RNA (the RNA world hypothesis), along with its replicating apparatus and other biomolecules. Initial protocells may have simply burst when they grew too large; the scattered contents may then have recolonized other “bubbles”. Proteins that stabilized the membrane, or that later assisted in an orderly division, would have promoted the proliferation of those cell lines.

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Proterozoic eon

Ga: Oxygen revolution

The harnessing of the sun’s energy led to several major changes in life on Earth.
Graph showing range of estimated partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen through geologic time [37]
A banded iron formation from the 3.15 Ga Moories Group, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa. Red layers represent the times when oxygen was available, gray layers were formed in anoxic circumstances.
The first cells were likely heterotrophs, using surrounding organic molecules (including those from other cells) as raw material and an energy source.[31]:564-566 As the food supply diminished, a new strategy evolved in some cells. Instead of relying on the diminishing amounts of free-existing organic molecules, these cells adopted sunlight as an energy source. Estimates vary, but by about 3 Ga, something similar to modern oxygenic photosynthesis had probably developed, which made the sun’s energy available not only to autotrophs but also to the heterotrophs that consumed themThis type of photosynthesis, which became by far the most common, used the abundant carbon dioxide and water as raw materials and, with the energy of sunlight, produced energy-rich organic molecules (carbohydrates).
Moreover, oxygen was released as a waste product of the photosynthesis.[37] At first, it became bound up with limestone, iron, and other minerals. There is substantial proof of this in iron-oxide rich layers in geological strata that correspond with this period. The reaction of the minerals with oxygen would have turned the oceans green. When most of the exposed readily reacting minerals were oxidized, oxygen finally began to accumulate in the atmosphere. Though each cell only produced a minute amount of oxygen, the combined metabolism of many cells over a vast time transformed Earth’s atmosphere to its current state.[34]:50-51 Among the oldest examples of oxygen-producing lifeforms are fossil stromatolites. This was Earth’s third atmosphere.
Some of the oxygen was stimulated by incoming ultraviolet radiation to form ozone, which collected in a layer near the upper part of the atmosphere. The ozone layer absorbed, and still absorbs, a significant amount of the ultraviolet radiation that once had passed through the atmosphere. It allowed cells to colonize the surface of the ocean and eventually the land:[40] without the ozone layer, ultraviolet radiation bombarding land and sea would have caused unsustainable levels of mutation in exposed cells.
Photosynthesis had another, major, and world-changing impact. Oxygen was toxic; probably much life on Earth died out as its levels rose in what is known as the "oxygen catastrophe".[40] Resistant forms survived and thrived, and some developed the ability to use oxygen to increase their metabolism and obtain more energy from the same food.

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Ga: Proterozoic development of life

Some of the pathways by which the various endosymbionts might have arisen.
Modern taxonomy classifies life into three domains. The time of the origin of these domains is uncertain. The Bacteria domain probably first split off from the other forms of life (sometimes called Neomura), but this supposition is controversial. Soon after this, by 2 Ga,[42] the Neomura split into the Archaea and the Eukarya. Eukaryotic cells (Eukarya) are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells (Bacteria and Archaea), and the origin of that complexity is only now becoming known.
Around this time, the first proto-mitochondrion was formed. A bacterial cell related to today’s Rickettsia,[43] which had evolved to metabolize oxygen, entered a larger prokaryotic cell, which lacked that capability. Perhaps the large cell attempted to ingest the smaller one but failed (possibly due to the evolution of prey defenses). The smaller cell may have tried to parasitize the larger one. In any case, the smaller cell survived inside the larger cell. Using oxygen, it metabolized the larger cell’s waste products and derived more energy. Some of this excess energy was returned to the host. The smaller cell replicated inside the larger one. Soon, a stable symbiosis developed between the large cell and the smaller cells inside it. Over time, the host cell acquired some of the genes of the smaller cells, and the two kinds became dependent on each other: the larger cell could not survive without the energy produced by the smaller ones, and these in turn could not survive without the raw materials provided by the larger cell. The whole cell is now considered a single organism, and the smaller cells are classified as organelles called mitochondria.
A similar event occurred with photosynthetic cyanobacteria[44] entering large heterotrophic cells and becoming chloroplasts.[34]:60-61[31]:536-539 Probably as a result of these changes, a line of cells capable of photosynthesis split off from the other eukaryotes more than 1 billion years ago. There were probably several such inclusion events, as the figure at right suggests. Besides the well-established endosymbiotic theory of the cellular origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, it has been suggested that cells led to peroxisomes, spirochetes led to cilia and flagella, and that perhaps a DNA virus led to the cell nucleus,though none of these theories is widely accepted.[47]
Green algae of the genus Volvox are believed to be similar to the first multicellular plants.
Archaeans, bacteria, and eukaryotes continued to diversify and to become more complex and better adapted to their environments. Each domain repeatedly split into multiple lineages, although little is known about the history of the archaea and bacteria. Around 1.1 Ga, the supercontinent Rodinia was assembling.[48] The plant, animal, and fungi lines had all split, though they still existed as solitary cells. Some of these lived in colonies, and gradually some division of labor began to take place; for instance, cells on the periphery might have started to assume different roles from those in the interior. Although the division between a colony with specialized cells and a multicellular organism is not always clear, around 1 billion years ago[49] the first multicellular plants emerged, probably green algae.[50] Possibly by around 900 Ma[31]:488 true multicellularity had also evolved in animals.
At first it probably resembled today’s sponges, which have totipotent cells that allow a disrupted organism to reassemble itself.[31]:483-487 As the division of labor was completed in all lines of multicellular organisms, cells became more specialized and more dependent on each other; isolated cells would die.

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Late Proterozoic climate and life


A 580 million year old fossil of Spriggina floundensi, an animal from the Ediacaran period. Such life forms could have been ancestors to the many new forms that origined in the Cambrian Explosion.
The end of the Proterozoic saw at least two Snowball Earths, so severe that the surface of the oceans may have been completely frozen. This happened about 710 and 640 Ma, in the Cryogenian period. These severe glaciations are less easy to explain than the early Proterozoic Snowball Earth. Most paleoclimatologists think the cold episodes had something to do with the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia. Because Rodinia was centered on the equator, rates of chemical weathering increased and carbon dioxide (CO2) was taken from the atmosphere. Because CO2 is an important greenhouse gas, climates cooled globally.
In the same way, during the Snowball Earths most of the continental surface was in permafrost, which decreased chemical weathering again, leading to the end of the glaciations. An alternative hypothesis is that enough carbon dioxide escaped through volcanic outgassing that the resulting greenhouse effect raised global temperatures.[55] Increased volcanic activity resulted from the break-up of Rodinia at about the same time.
The Cryogenian period was followed by the Ediacaran period, which was characterized by a rapid development of new multicellular lifeforms. Whether there is a connection between the end of the severe ice ages and the increase in diversity of life is not clear, but it does not seem coincidental.

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ya: Recent events


Four and a half billion years after the planet's formation, Earth’s life broke free of the biosphere. For the first time in history, Earth was viewed from space.
Change has continued at a rapid pace from the mid-1940s to today. Technological developments include nuclear weapons, computers, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Economic globalization spurred by advances in communication and transportation technology has influenced everyday life in many parts of the world. Cultural and institutional forms such as democracy, capitalism, and environmentalism have increased influence. Major concerns and problems such as disease, war, poverty, violent radicalism, and recently, human-caused climate change have risen as the world population increases.[94]
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit and, soon afterward, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Neil Armstrong, an American, was the first to set foot on another astronomical object, the Moon. Unmanned probes have been sent to all the known planets in the solar system, with some (such as Voyager) having left the solar system. The Soviet Union and the United States were the earliest leaders in space exploration in the 20th Century. Five space agencies, representing over fifteen countries,[95] have worked together to build the International Space Station. Aboard it, there has been a continuous human presence in space since 2000.[96]

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