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ODU's Nora Noffke Becomes Carnegie Institution Visiting Scholar

Nora Noffke, a geobiologist who has been on the Old Dominion University faculty since 2001, has accepted an additional appointment as a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. (CIW). The invitation to work with the CIW research staff was extended by Russell Hemley, director of the institution's Geophysical Laboratory, and Noffke accepted on Jan. 16.

At CIW, Noffke will spend several days each month participating in research, seminars and the overall academic life. Her work will be funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute Carnegie and sponsored by Robert Hazen, a researcher at the Geophysical Laboratory who is well known for his scientific investigations concerning the origin of life.

"This appointment as a Carnegie Institution visiting scholar is high recognition of Professor Noffke's work," said Chris Platsoucas, dean of ODU's College of Sciences. Noffke is an associate professor in the college's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

The visiting scholar appointment is open-ended, extending as long as the institution and scholar find it beneficial.

Noffke's research has shown that microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS), a term that her work has helped to coin, are reliable geobiological evidence of early life on Earth. The research, which was highlighted last year in the journal Geobiology, finds that life forms colonized sandy coasts of Earth around 3 billion years ago during the Archean Age. The work provides an answer to a question scientists have grappled with: If tiny microbes were the earliest living organisms, where in the geological record can we possibly find irrefutable evidence of their existence?

The ODU researcher's work previously was described in the May 5, 2006, edition of Science magazine and in her paper published in the April 2006 edition of the journal Geology.

In 2007, Noffke was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in recognition of her research establishing MISS as evidence of the earliest life on Earth. She also won the 2007 James Lee Wilson Award of the Society of Sedimentary Geologists, which is given annually to recognize international excellence in marine geology by a young scientist.

Her latest research in South Africa has turned up a virtual treasure trove of geological samples supporting her case that the microbial mats we see today covering tidal flats were also present as life was beginning on Earth. The mats, which are woven of cyanobacteria, can cause unusual textures and formations in the sand beneath them. Noffke has identified two dozen such textures and formations caused by present-day microbial mats, and has found corresponding formations in geological structures dating back through the ages.

The research also can be focused on the search for life on other planets. Dina Bower, who received her doctorate from ODU last year and was advised by Noffke, was awarded a NASA fellowship several months ago to do postdoctoral work at CIW. For her doctoral thesis, Bower focused on how the research findings from the cyanobacterial mat studies could be applied to NASA's search for life on Mars. As a postdoctoral researcher, she will investigate ways to use minerals as biosignatures in ancient rocks.

Noffke's sponsor at CIW, Hazen, has done recent research on the role of minerals in the origin of life, including such processes as mineral-catalyzed organic synthesis and the selective adsorption of organic molecules on mineral surfaces. He also studies factors that facilitate the emergence of complex evolving systems, including the origin of life. The phosphate biomineral hazenite was named in his honor in 2008.

Hazen, who has received numerous professional awards over the past three decades, is the author of more than 330 articles and 20 books on science, history and music. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This article was posted on: January 21, 2009

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