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Earth's atmosphere has changed through time. Compared to the Sun, whose composition is representative of the raw materials from which Earth and other planets in our solar system formed, Earth contains less of some volatile elements, such as nitrogen, argon, hydrogen, and helium. These elements were lost when the envelope of gases, or primary atmosphere, that surrounded early Earth, was stripped away by the solar wind or by meteorite impacts, or both. Little by little, the planet generated a new, secondary atmosphere by volcanic outgassing of volatile materials from its interior. Volcanic outgassing continues to be the main process by which volatile materials are released from Earth – although it is now going on at a much slower rate. The main chemical constituent of volcanic gases (as much as 97 percent of volume) is water vapor, with varying amounts of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other gases. In fact, the total volume of volcanic gases released over the past 4 billion years or so is believed to account for the present composition of the atmosphere with one important exception: oxygen. Earth had virtually no oxygen in its atmosphere more than 4 billion years ago, but the atmosphere is now approximately 21 percent oxygen. Traces of oxygen were probably generated in the early atmosphere by the breakdown of water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen by ultraviolet light (a process called photodissociation). Although this is an important process, it cannot begin to account for the present high levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Almost all of the free oxygen now in the atmosphere originated through photosynthesis, the process whereby plants use light energy to induce carbon dioxide to react with water, producing carbohydrates and oxygen. Oxygen is a very reactive chemical, so at first most of the free oxygen produced by photosynthesis was combined with iron in ocean water to form iron oxide-bearing minerals. The evidence of the gradual transition from oxygen-poor to oxygen-rich water is preserved in seafloor sediments. The minerals in seafloor sedimentary rocks that are more than about 2.5 billion years old contain reduced (oxygen-poor) iron compounds. In rocks that are less than 1.8 billion years old, oxidized (oxygen-rich) compounds predominate. The sediments that were precipitated during the transition contain alternating bands of red (oxidized iron) and black (reduced iron) minerals. These rocks are called banded-iron formations. Because ocean water is in constant contact with the atmosphere, and the two systems function together in a state of dynamic equilibrium, the transition from an oxygen-poor to an oxygen-rich atmosphere also must have occurred during this period. Along with the buildup of molecular oxygen (O2) came an eventual increase in ozone (O3) levels in the atmosphere. Because ozone filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation, this made it possible for life to flourish in shallow water and finally on land. This critical state in the evolution of the atmosphere was reached between 1100 and 542 million years ago. Interestingly, the fossil record shows an explosion of life forms 542 million years ago.   Oxygen has continued to play a key role in the evolution and form of life. Over the last 200 million years, the concentration of oxygen has risen from 10 percent to as much as 25 percent of the atmosphere, before setting (probably not permanently) at its current value of 21 percent. This increase has benefited mammals, which are voracious oxygen consumers. Not only do we require oxygen to fuel our high-energy, warm-blooded metabolism, our unique reproductive system demands even more. An expectant mother's used (venous) blood must still have enough oxygen in it to diffuse through the placenta into her unborn child's bloodstream. It would be very difficult for any mammal species to survive in an atmosphere of only 10 percent oxygen. Geologists cannot yet be certain why the atmospheric oxygen levels increased, but they have a hypothesis. First, photosynthesis is only one part of the oxygen cycle. The cycle is completed by decomposition, in which organic carbon combines with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide. But if organic matter is buried as sediment before it fully decomposes, its carbon is no longer available to react with the free oxygen. Thus there will be a net accumulation of carbon in sediments and of oxygen in the atmosphere.