Moselio Schaechter

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October 15, 2009

Talmudic Question #54

Some believe that the extent of anaerobic respiration on Earth is usually underestimated. What is your guess for the proportion of biogenic CO2 that is made by this mechanism?


(Oops - forgot the [1]...)

[1] - Is there anything known that can respire on fluorine?...

Elio replies:

I have no idea but it would be strange, no? Anybody?

I wouldn't underestimate the effect of the metabolic Irrational Exuberance that we and our fellow freakish oxygen-respiring critters can have. It seems reasonable to me that we might be out-biomassed by anaerobes, but our (meaning all oxygen-respiring single- and multi-celled organisms) ability to harness the electron-sucking power of oxygen - the second-most electron-suckingest element that exists[1] - enables us to oxidize carbon at a comparatively awesome rate and efficiency.

I wonder - how much exchange of oxygen atoms goes on between the anaerobic and aerobic biospheres? Is there enough separation that there might be differences in oxygen isotope ratios, which could in turn be compared to the oxygen isotopes in atmospheric carbon dioxide to estimate how much comes from aerobic vs. anaerobic activity?

Elio replies:

You make a challenging and perhaps elegant point. Not being an expert, I hope that others who know more of such maters would comment.

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