Article image

The total amount of life that has ever existed on Earth is mind-blowing

Life on Earth remains a subject of immense curiosity and scientific investigation across all sections of humanity. But have you ever stopped to think about the total amount of life that has existed on Earth since the first cells appeared 3.8 billion years ago?

What about the total amount of life that will ever inhabit our planet, from now until Earth is consumed by the Sun?

A recent study led by Peter Crockford, Assistant Professor at Carleton University, in collaboration with researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Smith College, dives head first into this mind-blowing topic.

Their work, published in Current Biology, delves into the historical and future aspects of life on our planet.

The role of “primary production”

At the heart of the study is the concept of primary production, a process where organisms convert inorganic carbon, like atmospheric carbon dioxide and oceanic bicarbonate, into the organic molecules essential for life.

This process, currently dominated by oxygenic photosynthesis involving sunlight and water, is responsible for an estimated annual uptake of 200 billion tons of carbon.

Understanding the historical rates of primary production is crucial, and scientists have turned to the isotopic composition of oxygen in ancient sulfate deposits for answers.

Historical insights and astonishing figures

The study compiled various estimates of ancient primary production, leading to the staggering conclusion that about 100 quintillion tons of carbon have been processed since life began.

This figure is a hundredfold greater than the total carbon content contained inside the Earth, highlighting the profound impact of primary producers like plants, algae, and cyanobacteria.

In Earth’s early days, primary production was predominantly managed by organisms that didn’t rely on oxygenic photosynthesis.

Techniques like identifying the oldest forests and analyzing molecular fossils have helped pinpoint when different primary producers were most active.

Estimating the total amount of life on Earth

Crockford’s team found that land plants, despite their late emergence, have likely been the biggest contributors to Earth’s primary production.

Cyanobacteria also stand out as significant contributors. This research is vital in understanding not just the amount of primary production but also the organisms responsible for it.

One fascinating aspect of the study is the estimation of life on Earth, both historically and presently. By correlating primary production with cell existence, the researchers approximate that around 1030 (10 noninillion) cells exist today.

Throughout Earth’s history, between 1039 (a duodecillion) and 1040 cells have likely existed.

Finite nature of Earth’s biosphere

The study also touches on the finite lifespan of Earth’s biosphere, a sobering reality dictated by the life cycle of the sun.

Over time, the sun’s increasing brightness will push Earth’s biogeochemical systems beyond their limits, leading to the demise of land plants and eventually turning Earth back into a largely lifeless planet.

Looking forward, Crockford and his team project that about 1040 cells will inhabit Earth over its entire habitable lifetime. This projection is based on current levels of primary productivity.

Earth as an exoplanet benchmark

In an era where over 5000 exoplanets have been discovered, the study also positions Earth as a benchmark for comparing life on other planets.

Crockford emphasizes the significance of historical events, like the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis and endosymbiosis, in shaping the trajectory and abundance of life on Earth.

These insights not only enhance our understanding of our planet but also guide the exploration of extraterrestrial life.

What’s next?

In summary, this incredible work by Peter Crockford and his team offers a profound perspective on the scope and scale of life on Earth.

By quantifying the vast amounts of carbon processed since the dawn of life and estimating the staggering number of cells that have existed, and will exist, the research deepens our understanding of Earth’s biological history, while placing our planet in a broader cosmic context.

As we continue to discover and analyze exoplanets, Earth’s unique evolutionary path, shaped by pivotal phenomena like oxygenic photosynthesis, serves as a vital reference point.

This research illuminates our planet’s past and predicts its future. It also underscores the delicate balance of conditions that sustain life.

As we look towards the future, Crockford’s work reminds us of the transient nature of life on Earth and the ongoing quest to unravel the mysteries of life in the universe.

Beginnings of life on Earth

As mentioned above, the beginning of life on Earth is a story of extraordinary complexity and wonder, forged billions of years ago.

This narrative starts around 4.5 billion years ago, when Earth itself formed from the dust and cosmic debris left over from the sun’s creation.

Initially, the young Earth was a molten, hostile environment, unsuitable for any form of life as we know it today.

Earth’s oceans and the emergence of life

As Earth cooled, water vapor began to condense and form oceans. It was in these primordial waters, around 3.8 to 4.1 billion years ago, that life first emerged.

The exact process remains one of science’s great mysteries, but the prevailing theory suggests that life began with simple organic compounds.

These compounds, through a series of chemical reactions possibly driven by lightning or volcanic activity, formed the building blocks of life: amino acids and nucleotides.

Then, a critical leap occurred. These organic molecules combined in just the right way to form the first simple, self-replicating entities.

These were the earliest forms of life, likely RNA-like molecules that could both store genetic information and catalyze chemical reactions, a precursor to modern DNA.

Evolution and the rise of complex life

Over countless millennia, these simple forms evolved, becoming more complex and diverse.

They developed the ability to harness energy from the sun through photosynthesis, which dramatically altered Earth’s atmosphere and paved the way for more complex life forms.

The rise of oxygen in the atmosphere was a turning point, leading to the evolution of aerobic organisms that could use oxygen for energy.

The diverse web of life

From these humble beginnings, life diversified into the myriad forms we see today, from bacteria to plants, insects, animals, and humans.

Through the process of primary production, the amount of life that has existed on Earth, and will exist in the future, is nothing short of staggering.

This vast web of life all traces back to those first organic compounds that formed in Earth’s ancient oceans, making our planet a unique and thriving ecosystem in the vastness of space.

In summary, the story of life’s beginning on Earth, and the total amount of life that has existed on Earth since the very first cell evolved, is a tale of chemical and biological evolution.

Earth’s story is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of life. It underscores the importance of understanding our planet’s history and preserving its biodiversity for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal Current Biology.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day