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Noffke Becomes Affiliated with Australian Center for Astrobiology

Nora Noffke, an Old Dominion University geobiologist who has won international recognition for research establishing microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) as evidence of the earliest life on Earth, has become an associate member of the Australian Center for Astrobiology (ACA).

The association works with NASA and the European Space Agency on multidisciplinary research studying early life on Earth and the prospects of life existing or having existed on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system. Astrobiology is a relatively new field of study at the crossroads of astronomy, biology, geology, paleontology, physics and other disciplines.

Noffke visited the ACA in September and met with its director, Malcolm Walter. He has been working for nearly four decades on the geological evidence of early life on Earth, including stromatolites. Scientists believe that stromatolites, which are dome- or column-shaped sedimentary rock structures, are formed over long periods of geologic time by microorganisms that live and die in shallow water environments.

These structures, as well as the MISS that Noffke has focused on, have been set forth as evidence that life existed on Earth more than 3 billion years ago. They also provide scientists with clues about geologic evidence of microbial life that might exist on Mars.

The ASA, which is centered at the University of New South Wales where Walter is a professor in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, has associate members from all over Australia, Europe, and from NASA, MIT, Arizona State University, the University of South Carolina and the University of Connecticut.

In 2007, Noffke was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in recognition of her research establishing MISS as evidence of the earliest life on Earth. 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. She is an associate professor in ODU's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Her latest research in South Africa has turned up 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.

Noffke's research also has involved studies focusing on the search for life on other planets.

This article was posted on: October 7, 2010

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