I am currently based at the NASA Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, California. I am working with Brad Bebout and his lab to work out how tiny microbes may be able to leave traces in the rocks, that we would be able to detect even after billions of years, or from millions of miles away.
I am working with microbial mats – layered structures made from cooperating groups of bacteria and algae – to see how they can leave a record in the rocks that form around them. Identifying these processes on Earth can help in identifying them on other planets (such as Mars, with the new Curiosity rover), but could also make algae useful in space applications, like waste water recycling, or food production.
I have recently completed my PhD at Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford. The thesis title was ‘Remarkable Preservation in Phosphate and Early Evolution of the Biosphere’. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, for me, this is a broad ranging topic that has enabled me to follow a few different avenues of research during my academic career.
My thesis centred around the (re)discovery of tiny single celled fossils, preserved in exceptional detail within sedimentary phosphate in Torridonian rocks over 1000 million years old. The rocks were formed in ancient lake beds, and now outcrop in northwest Scotland. Although first reported in the early 20th century, they were since neglected, and therefore warrant a great deal of research using modern methods and technologies.
The fossils and their story are exciting for a number of reasons.
- The cellular fossils are the oldest ever found in the UK.
- The fossils represent eukaryotic green algae, the ancestors of early plants. Appearing as they do in lake beds, they are evidence that there was plant life in terrestrial environments one billion years ago. Previously, it was thought that plants didn’t move onto the land until 450 million years ago, so the Torridonian fossils more than double this age.
- The nature of fossil preservation – as cells entombed within a ‘resin’ of sedimentary phosphate – is novel and largely unreported in the rock record. It has the potential to preserve even the most fragile of fossil structures, such as the delicate cell membrane of a bare cell.
On top of all that, if that wasn’t enough, I worked on: taxonomy of microfossils in the Precambrian; major transitions during the Precambrian, including the evolution of sex; and imaging methods of ‘large’ microfossils.