Life and the chemical environment are united in an inescapable feedback cycle. The periodic table of the elements essential for life has transformed over Earth’s history, but, as today, evolved in tune with the elements available in abundance in the environment. The most revolutionary time in life’s history was the advent and proliferation of oxygenic photosynthesis which forced the environment towards a greater degree of oxidation. Consideration of three inorganic chemical equilibria throughout this gradual oxygenation prescribes a phased release of trace metals to the environment, which appear to have coevolved with employment of these new chemicals by life. Evolution towards complexity was chemically constrained, and changes in availability of notably Fe, Zn and Cu paced the systematic development of complex organisms. Evolving life repeatedly catalysed its own chemical challenges via the unwitting release of new and initially toxic chemicals. Ultimately, the harnessing of these allowed life to advance to greater complexity, though the mechanism responsible for translating novel chemistry to heritable use remains elusive. Whether a chemical acts as a poison or a nutrient lies both in the dose and in its environmental history.
One contribution of 18 to a discussion meeting issue ‘The new chemistry of the elements’.
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