The Bacteria That Made Life Possible Are Now Killing Us

Hi, this is Julián from MinuteEarth. Three billion years ago the land was lifeless
and the air oxygen-free but rich in CO2. The oceans were hot and loaded with nitrogen
and phosphorus, and aquatic microbes called cyanobacteria were loving it. These microbes would later turn out to be
our enemies, but at this point in time humans didn’t exist yet. In fact, cyanobacteria actually helped make
our existence possible in the first place. But back to early life on Earth… In addition to being heat tolerant, the cyanobacteria
grew in thin mats that were good at soaking up light and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus,
and built nasty toxins to poison their competitors. And in one of the most profound steps in all
of evolution, they figured out how to combine carbon dioxide with water to make tasty sugar
– a process called photosynthesis. But that fancy new photosynthesis also happened
to release oxygen which was poisonous to organisms that had evolved under oxygen-free conditions,
which meant pretty much all life on Earth at that time, including most of the cyanobacteria
themselves. But over time the surviving cyanobacteria
evolved, to not just tolerate oxygen, but to use it, with a sort-of reversal of photosynthesis,
which we now call aerobic respiration. This helped cyanobacteria survive, and in
fact, grow to dominate the Earth’s oceans for another billion years. Eventually though, as the Earth began to cool
and nutrient supplies got used up, some algae well adapted to those conditions also stole
cyanobacteria’s metabolic secrets. The algae out-competed cyanobacteria, pushing
them into the shadows across much of Earth’s waters for the next billion years or so. This long interval also saw the evolution
of more complicated life-forms, including oxygen-breathers like us … and we have held
center stage from cyanobacteria ever since. But our success today is now making things
awesome again for cyanobacteria. We’ve done this by pumping CO2 into the air,
which has warmed the atmosphere and oceans, which cyanobacteria like. Also, because we over-fertilize our farm fields,
the rain washes a lot of that fertilizer into rivers and oceans, providing a level of delicious
nutrients that cyanobacteria haven’t seen for perhaps billions of years. And that’s bad for us, because these heat-loving,
nutrient-gobbling microbes are once again forming sludgy gross-smelling mats, that release
nasty toxins that keep their algal competitors at bay – but also make animals and people
sick. And since cyanobacteria live short lives and
die in large groups, floating mats of their dead bodies serve as food for oxygen-breathing
decomposers, who temporarily use up all the available oxygen in the water, killing fish,
shrimp, insects, and plants in sometimes dangerously massive dead zones. To keep cyanobacteria at bay, we need to stop
warming the planet and to farm in a way that doesn’t send nutrients into waterways. Until we do, the little creatures that first
gave us oxygen are going to keep on blooming. And dying. And turning our oceans and lakes to the dark
side. This video was sponsored by the St. Croix
Watershed Research Station, with financial support from the McKnight Foundation. The Research Station is part of the Science
Museum of Minnesota, and its scientists study lakes and rivers across Minnesota to better
understand when, where, and why cyanobacterial blooms occur — and how we can prevent cyanobacteria
from harming lakes and rivers and the people and wildlife that depend on them. Thanks, St. Croix Watershed Research Station!

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