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Discovery Channel's Prehistoric Disasters Features ODU's Noffke

Old Dominion University geobiologist Nora Noffke explains her microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) research and is shown doing field work in South Africa on the Discovery Channel television program "Prehistoric Disasters" debuting at 11 p.m. March 26.

Noffke's 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 around 3 billion years ago.

The Discovery Channel program shows evidence of early life on the planet, and documents the relationship between the start of life and the conditions on early Earth that "lurched from one terrible disaster to the next." Some of those disasters made the planet a fireball, and others made it a snowball.

The mats that Noffke studies, which are woven of tiny cyanobacteria, can cause unusual textures and formations in the sand beneath them. She has identified two dozen such textures and formations caused by present-day microbial mats, and has found corresponding formations in rocks as old as 2.9 billion years old.

In addition to scenes in South Africa, the Discovery Channel program includes video footage of Noffke pointing out living microbial mats on tidal flats of Fisherman Island, which lies at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore.

Noffke's research has built a convincing case that 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.

This article was posted on: March 23, 2009

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