Follow the Oxygen: Comparative Histories of Planetary Oxygenation and Opportunities for Aerobic Life
Aerobic respiration—the reduction of molecular oxygen (O2) coupled to the oxidation of reduced compounds such as organic carbon, ferrous iron, reduced sulfur compounds, or molecular hydrogen while conserving energy to drive cellular processes—is the most widespread and bioenergetically favorable metabolism on Earth today. Aerobic respiration is essential for the development of complex multicellular life; thus the presence of abundant O2 is an important metric for planetary habitability. O2 on Earth is supplied by oxygenic photosynthesis, but it is becoming more widely understood that abiotic processes may supply meaningful amounts of O2 on other worlds. The modern atmosphere and rock record of Mars suggest a history of relatively high O2 as a result of photochemical processes, potentially overlapping with the range of O2 concentrations used by biology. Europa may have accumulated high O2 concentrations in its subsurface ocean due to the radiolysis of water ice at its surface. Recent modeling efforts suggest that coexisting water and O2 may be common on exoplanets, with confirmation from measurements of exoplanet atmospheres potentially coming soon. In all these cases, O2 accumulates through abiotic processes—independent of water-oxidizing photosynthesis. We hypothesize that abiogenic O2 may enhance the habitability of some planetary environments, allowing highly energetic aerobic respiration and potentially even the development of complex multicellular life which depends on it, without the need to first evolve oxygenic photosynthesis. This hypothesis is testable with further exploration and life-detection efforts on O2-rich worlds such as Mars and Europa, and comparison to O2-poor worlds such as Enceladus. This hypothesis further suggests a new dimension to planetary habitability: "Follow the Oxygen," in which environments with opportunities for energy-rich metabolisms such as aerobic respiration are preferentially targeted for investigation and life detection.