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ODU's Noffke Tapped to Organize Inaugural Geobiology Conference

Nora Noffke

Old Dominion University faculty member Nora Noffke has initiated a new Gordon Research Conference that will explore the novel and rapidly evolving research discipline of geobiology.

Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) is a nonprofit organization that works internationally to promote forums for the presentation and discussion of frontier research in sciences and related technologies.

"GRC meetings bring together a group of scientists working in a new field of research and allow them to explore in depth all aspects of the most recent advances in the field and to identify new directions for the research," Noffke said.

She is currently chair of the division Geobiology and Geomicrobiology of the Geological Society of America. "In this function I see my task to promote geobiology as much as possible," she added.

This inaugural geobiology conference will focus on Microbial Ecology in the Early Fossil Record on Earth and Modern Analogues, and is scheduled Jan. 30-Feb. 4, 2011, in Ventura Beach, Calif.

Noffke is the second member of the ODU ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences faculty to be tapped to lead a GRC meeting in 2011. Professor David Burdige is chair of the GRC 2011 biennial meeting on chemical oceanography.

The GRC meeting that Noffke is organizing will focus on the appearance and evolution of life and habitats on Earth, but will also touch on the detection of life on other planetary systems. The vice chair is John Stolz of the Department of Biological Sciences at Duquesne University.

Noffke's work has established microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) in geobiological research studying earliest life on Earth. Whereas former studies mostly focused on fossils of bacteria preserved in chert (sedimentary rock), or on stromatolites, Noffke's approach has been to investigate structures caused by biofilms and microbial mats in siliciclastic (sandy) sediments. The advantage is that MISS occur in modern coastal areas as well, where they form models for the understanding of ancient MISS.

"We have helped to get MISS recognized in the science community, and now I feel an obligation to advance this line of research," she said.

Noffke is beginning to work on the GRC meeting at the same time as she is winding down her work as a convener of the SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology field conference in Denver May 21-23 of this year. That conference is on Microbial Mats in Siliciclastic Sediments from the Archean to Present.

"Organizing two conferences at a time is a lot of work, but it is actually not that bad. My co-conveners and I are only responsible for the scientific program. The logistics and registration is handled by the sponsoring organizations. Without this most valuable support, we could not do it," she said.

Noffke noted that while the SEPM Field Conference in Denver is on her specific research field of MISS in sandy deposits from the Archean period to today, the GRC meeting has a much wider window. "It is on the ecology of Earth in the Hadean and the Archean. This includes topics on the composition of Earth's early crust, ocean water chemistry, atmosphere and life."

For more information about the GRC conference next year, see http://www.grc.org/programs.aspx?year=2011&program=geobiology.

Noffke, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at ODU, was the guest editor last year of a special issue of the journal Geobiology that delved into various research and issues involving MISS. This 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?

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

Research in South Africa by Noffke 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. She 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 Eath's earliest ages.

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.

The SEPM conference in May that Noffke has organized will bring together an

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

For more information about the May 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: February 18, 2010

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