(Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences-Microbial Ecology Laboratory)

Exploring Ancient Life and Making Life-Long Connections

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Ever wonder how life originated? Did it happen on Earth? When did it happen? How did it start and who was first? The chicken or the egg? No, when life started it was definitely a microbe and an autotroph (makes its on food, like a plant). Still reading? This means you are interested in the fields of astrobiology and geobiology.

This summer I spent five weeks traveling around the western US researching geobiology through the USC international GeoBiology course. First two weeks involved traveling around Southern California and Nevada collecting stromatolites, environmental, and microbial samples. Sample sites included Walker Lake, Mt. Dunfee, Rowlands Reef, and Little Hot Creek. During this time we also had a little fun visiting Mono Lake, The ancient Bristlecone Pine forest, and the The California Science Center. The California Science Center setup was great. They had each of Earth’s biomes in different rooms and even had a special Arctic and Antarctic room! As amazing as the “polar room” was, my favorite part was the special exhibit of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I have always loved NASA and this experience to touch and see a shuttle that had been in outer space was phenomenal.


The Endeavor space shuttle being feature at The California Science Center


A microbial mat collected from Little Hot Creek and the four microbial layers are labeled


The open valley in Nevada where we collected stromatolite samples near Mt. Dunfee and Rowlands Reef


Gary and other geobio students analyzing field samples

 Weeks 3 and 4 were at CSU-Fullerton processing samples and coming up to speed on modern geological and biological techniques. Each day we honed in on a specific technique involving rock cutting, stromatolite identification (also abiotic versus biotic), Qiime analyses, Confocal and Epifluorescence microscopy training, geochecmistry, and microbial metabolism analyses. At the end of these weeks we were treated to a full day tour of NASA and California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. This is extreme nerd-landia! We got to meet Dr. Kevin Hand and he showed us some test rovers.


Dr. Kevin Hand showing off Mars lander rovers


Gary getting ready to see how much weight a rover can carry

 The final week was at the USC Wrigley institute for environmental studies on Catalina Island, where we pulled data and analyses to write and present a final presentation entitled: How do microbial mats become stromatolites?


The microbial mat group


A collection and fun day at Catalina Island

 This course was the best academic experience I have had so far!

In all, 15 graduate student and postdoctoral researchers from throughout the world participated in the interdisciplinary summer program, which takes a hands-on approach to exploring the Earth and its biosphere. The discipline combines earth science and biology to look at how life leaves an imprint on the Earth’s chemistry and its mineral deposits. It examines how those interactions have affected the planet’s past and present — and how they may affect its future.

I really enjoyed this trip, the people, and all the instructors. Thanks to: Hope Johnson, Sean Lyod, Bradley Stevenson, Frank Corsetti, John Spear, Will Berelson, John Chase, Chase Williamson, and Russell Shapiro. Special thanks to all the TAs who helped teach, guide analyses, and provided entertainment Blake Stamps, Victoria Petryshyn, and Carie Frantz. My heart goes out to Ann Close and Amber Brown for coordinating us, planning events, and feeding us every day!

The course was sponsored by: Agouron Institute, National Science Foundation, Colorado School of Mines, California State University, Fullerton, Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, and USC Wrigley Institute.

The course runs every June-first week in July and applications are due in February. For more information check out the website: https://dornsife.usc.edu/wrigley/geobiology/



The Geobiology 2014 group!


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