A chemical process used in the browning of food to give it its distinct smell and taste is probably happening deep in the oceans, where it helped create the conditions necessary for life. Known as the Maillard reaction after the French scientist who discovered it, the process converts small molecules of organic carbon into bigger molecules known as polymers. In the kitchen, it is used to create flavors and aromas out of sugars. But a research team argues that on the sea floor, the process has had a more fundamental effect, where it has helped to raise oxygen and reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to create the conditions for complex life forms to emerge and thrive on Earth.

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