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Noffke Tapped to Organize First Ever Microbial Mat Conference Tracing Earliest Life

Nora Noffke

Old Dominion University geobiologist Nora Noffke, whose research has helped to establish microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) as evidence of the earliest life on Earth, is an organizer of the first ever conference on the topic, which will be held in Denver in May 2010.

The conference, titled Microbial Mats in Siliciclastic Sediments from the Archaen to Present, is sponsored by SEPM/Society for Sedimentary Geology.

An international group of scientists will present research and provide a state-of-the-art overview of the rapidly growing field, Noffke said. The co-convenor is Henry Chafetz of the University of Texas, Houston.

Noffke's work has shown that geological structures found today where sandy shorelines existed 3 billion years ago hold clues to the beginning of life on Earth.

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 ODU associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences was the guest editor last year of a special issue of the journal Geobiology that delved into various research and issues involving MISS. Her work seeks to answer a question scientists have long grappled with: If tiny, tiny microbes were the earliest living organisms, where in the geological record can we possibly find irrefutable evidence of their existence?

In 2007, Noffke was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA) in recognition of her MISS research. 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.

At present, Noffke is dividing her time between  ODU and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Her work at Carnegie is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute Carnegie and sponsored by Robert Hazen, a researcher at Carnegie's Geophysical Laboratory who is well known for his scientific investigations concerning the origin of life.

For more information about the upcoming conference, visit www.sepm.org/activities/researchconferences/microbial/microbial_home.htm. The meeting is a NASA Astrobiology 50th birthday event.

This article was posted on: August 18, 2009

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