Scientists have identified five mass extinctions over the course of the Earth’s history. While many are familiar with the cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, the most dramatic die-off happened during the Permian 252 million years ago. According to research from MIT, a microbe named Methanosarcina may have been responsible for the demise of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates. The tiny organisms multiplied in such numbers that they were able to bombard the atmosphere with methane, causing the oceans to acidify and turn the climate into a hostile environment for life.

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While small, microbes can have an incredible effect on the condition of the planet’s atmosphere. It is already known that photosynthetic bacteria that emerged 2.5 billion years ago produced oxygen as a waste product, allowing for an enormous diversity of life to flourish. Yet, just as these organisms can give rise to species, they can also make conditions hostile for their fellow creatures.

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Researchers from MIT believe that Methanosarcina, a member of the kingdom Archaea, multiplied in such numbers during the Permian epoch that they triggered global warming on an incredible scale. The single-celled animals fed on huge amounts of nickel that were spewed from volcanic activity in Siberia as well as carbon sediments in the ocean. With an evolutionary acquisition that allowed for gene transfer and a plentiful food source, the Methanosarcina reproduced like mad and spewed gigantic amounts of methane into the atmosphere. It took 30 million years for for vertebrates to reach the same levels of diversity after the crash.

“I would say that the end-Permian extinction is the closest animal life has ever come to being totally wiped out, and it may have come pretty close.” noted MIT scientist, Greg Fournier.

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Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2 and hangs around in the atmosphere for about 12 years, trapping heat and contributing to global warming. Today, the gas can be traced to underground deposits, emissions from livestock, industry, and energy extraction. If the world’s countries do not make concerted efforts to get their gas problem under control, history could be doomed to repeat itself.

Via Reuters

Images via NASA and Wikicommons user Martin Proll