February 23, 2024 at 12:29 pm

How Many Cells Have Existed Since The Dawn Of Time? It’s A Really, Really Big Number.

by Trisha Leigh

Source: Shutterstock

Even if you’ve never wondered that before you read the headline, I just bet that now you’re dying to know.

It’s the way our brains work so it’s best not to fight it – and besides, all you have to do is keep reading to find the answer.

You probably do know that all organisms are made of cells. According to the best estimates by the world’s brightest geologists, the first cells came into existence around 3.8 billion years ago.

A new study was recently published in Current Biology that aims to delve deeper into figuring out just how many cells have existed on earth since that very first one.

Source: Shutterstock

As you may have guessed, it’s not a matter of simple multiplication.

First, you have to deal with primary production, the process in which inorganic carbon – like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and bicarbonate in the ocean – is turned into the energy that builds organic molecules.

The most common contributor to primary production today is oxygenic photosynthesis, which requires sunlight and water. Figuring out the rates of primary production in the far past, however, is a matter of deciphering clues left behind in sedimentary rocks.

The study claims that they can make estimates by looking at the isotopic composition of oxygen in the sulfate left in ancient salt deposits.

Source: Shutterstock

They then compiled all previous estimates of ancient primary production and estimated that 100 quintillion (100 billion billion) tons of carbon has been through primary production since life originated on Earth.

Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria are the most common contributors to primary production today, but in the past, it relied on a different group of organisms that don’t need oxygenic photosynthesis to survive.

The next part of the equation is estimating how many cells have existed due to this primary production throughout history, and to do that they had to estimate the number of cells per organism.

The answer (because your head isn’t already trying to calibrate numbers) is that around 10 nonillion cells exist today, and a whopping 1 duodecillion cells have existed since life began on this planet.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those numbers seem impossible.

But honestly, the amount of life that has cycled since the dawn of time is even harder to imagine than that.

Kind of makes you feel small, right?

And I don’t think that’s always a bad thing.

If you found that story interesting, learn more about why people often wake up around 3 AM and keep doing it for life.