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Article in Journal Nature Boosts Earliest Life Research of ODU's Noffke

Nora Noffke

A recent article in the journal Nature about the discovery of 3.2 billion-year-old microfossils gives a boost to related research conducted by Old Dominion University geobiologist Nora Noffke.

Emmanuelle Javaux of the University of Liege in Belgium, Craig Marshall of the University of Kansas and Andrey Bekker of the University of Manitoba reported in the Feb. 18 issue of Nature that they found organic-walled microfossils in some of Earth's oldest siliciclastic (sandy) deposits. These deposits in the Greenstone Belt (BGB) of South Africa contain the oldest record of a coastal environment and tidal activity.

The researchers acknowledge that scientists have had difficulty identifying fossils of the earliest life on Earth because the organisms were so small, and also because non-biological processes are capable of creating morphologies similar to microfossils. But the article presents compelling evidence that "relatively large microorganisms cohabited with earlier reported benthic microbial mats … 3.2 billion years ago."

It has been Noffke's work that has helped to establish microbial mats as a means of dating earliest life. The Nature article cites three earlier papers by Noffke in which she has reported her discoveries - also in South Africa's BGB - of

microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) up to 3.2 billion years old.

Rather than search for microfossils, Noffke has looked for geological evidence left by colonies of cyanobacteria that weave together into the microbial mats that can be found today covering tidal flats. Her research has shown that geological structures found where sandy shorelines existed billions of years ago look similar to forms created by the modern microbial mats and biofilms.

Research in South Africa by Noffke has turned up a virtual treasure trove of MISS samples. She has identified two dozen textures and formations caused by present-day microbial mats, and has found corresponding formations in geological structures dating back through Earth's earliest ages. One of her study sites in South Africa is currently discussed for designation as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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.

She is a convenor of a SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology field conference in Denver May 21-23 on Microbial Mats in Siliciclastic Sediments from the Archean to Present. She also has initiated a new Gordon Research Conference to explore the novel and rapidly evolving research discipline of geobiology. The later conference will be held in Ventura Beach, Calif., beginning Jan. 30, 2011, and will bring together the 100 top scientists in this research field.

This article was posted on: March 26, 2010

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