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Noffke Gets Top Geobiology Award from GSA

Nora Noffke

Old Dominion University faculty member Nora Noffke has been selected to receive one of the top awards given annually by the Geological Society of America (GSA), Division Geobiology.

The two other 2010 recipients of these Division Awards are John Grotzinger of California Technical Institute, the scientist-in-chief for NASA's Mars Rover program, and H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences and cofounder of the Division Geobiology.

"This is really good news and a well-deserved honor for Nora," said Richard Zimmerman, chair of the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in which Noffke holds the appointment of associate professor.

Noffke's recognition was for "contributions to the field of geobiology, and her service to the division geobiology of GSA." She has been chair of the division for the past two years.

For more than 15 years, Noffke has done pioneering research in the field of microbial mats and their significance for the paleontology of early life on Earth. She is the author of the first textbook on the subject, "Geobiology: Microbial Mats in Sandy Deposits from the Archean Era to Today" (Springer), which debuted earlier this summer.

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 what 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 promote the scientific discipline of geobiology. In addition to her work as chair of the Division Geobiology, she is the 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 at ODU, she is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

This article was posted on: August 11, 2010

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