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Noffke Produces First Textbook in Field of Microbial Mats

For more than 15 years, Old Dominion University geobiologist Nora Noffke has done pioneering research in the field of microbial mats and their significance for the paleontology of early life on Earth. Now she has written the first textbook on the subject, "Geobiology: Microbial Mats in Sandy Deposits from the Archean Era to Today."

The book, published by Springer, will be released June 29. "There is so much interest in the subject and I was getting so many inquires from colleagues, I thought I had to write a textbook," she said.

Noffke's work has focused on modern cyanobacteria in coastal environments, and the structures formed in sandy sediments by colonies of the bacteria. These structures can become fossilized and are found in rocks formed along sandy shores. Her work helped to coin the term microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS).

Fossil microbial structures tell us which bacteria have lived at various times in the ancient past. This is important information that yields clues not only about first life on the planet, but also about the chemical composition of ancient atmospheres and past oceans.

Cyanobacteria can produce oxygen by photosynthesis and apparently helped to create the oxygen-dominant atmosphere on Earth that allowed the evolution of higher life forms. Noffke's book presents evidence that cyanobacteria are 2.9 billion years old, and probably much older. It has been her research results that have pushed the first appearance of cyanobacteria from estimated 2.7 billion years ago to at least 2.9 billion years ago.

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 weaves 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 Earth's earliest ages.

Noffke has edited several books and special journal issues to foster the scientific discipline of geobiology. She is chair of the Division for Geobiology of the Geological Society of America (GSA) and founder of the Gordon Research Conference "Geobiology" to be held next year in California.

For her fundamental research, she was awarded the SEPM Society of Sedimentary Geologists' James Lee Wilson Medal, and the GSA Honorary Fellowship. In addition to her appointment as associate professor in ODU's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, she is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

This article was posted on: June 23, 2010

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