A rare kind of mineral known as "green rust", which could be used to scape toxic metals and radioactive species from the environment, also played a similar and crucial role early in Earth's history.
Research suggests for the first time that green rust was likely widespread in ancient oceans and may have played a vital role in the creation of our early atmosphere.
Led by Newcastle University, the study shows that during the Precambrian period, green rust scavenged heavy metals such as nickel out of the water, the journal Geology reports.
Only discovered last decade, green rust is a highly reactive iron mineral which experts hope could be used to clean up metal pollution and even radioactive waste, according to a Newcastle statement.
Newcastle University's Simon Poulton, professor, said this latest discovery proved the effectiveness of green rust as an environmental cleaner.
"Because it is so reactive, green rust has hardly ever been found before in nature and never in a water system like this," explains Poulton, who led the research team involving experts from the Universities of Newcastle, Nancy, Southern Denmark, Leeds and Brussels.