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New Approach Helps Expand Study Of Living Fossils

Ancient stromatolites represent a mineral record of carbonate chemistry and the evolution of early life.
by Staff Writers
Virginia Key FL (SPX) Nov 20, 2006
The origin of life lies in unique ocean reefs, and scientists from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have developed an approach to help investigate them better.

A new article published in the November issue of Geology reveals how Dr. Miriam Andres' stromatolite investigation - the first of its kind - has begun to "fingerprint" ancient microbial pathways, increasing the understanding of how these reef-like structures form and offering a new way to explore the origins of these living records, which are considered to be the core of most living organisms.

Modern marine stromatolites are living examples of one of the earth's oldest and most persistent widespread ecosystems. Although rare today, these layered deposits of calcium carbonate are found in shallow marine seas throughout 3.4 billion-year-old geologic records. Ancient stromatolites represent a mineral record of carbonate chemistry and the evolution of early life.

In the Geology paper, Dr. Andres and colleagues point out that incorrect assumptions have been made in interpreting stromatolite data: phototrophs, or oxygen-producers, were actually dominated by heterotrophs, or oxygen-consumers, in their contribution to stromatolite formation.

"The motivation for this study is that in ancient stromatolites, direct evidence of microbial activity is lacking," Dr. Andres explained. "Stable isotopes have provided a powerful tool to 'fingerprint' microbial pathways and better understand the sedimentary structures we see in the geologic record. Surprisingly, no study to date has documented this process for modern marine stromatolites."

Stromatolites are the oldest known macrofossils, dating back over three billion years. Dominating the fossil record for 80 percent of our planet's history, stromatolites formed massive reefs in this plane's primitive oceans. While stromatolites look much like coral reefs, they are actually formed from living microorganisms, both animal and plant-like. These microorganisms trap and bind sand grains together and/or produce calcium carbonate to form laminated limestone mounds.

"We knew that the stromatolite ecosystem was dominated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria, and expected to see this reflected in a positive carbon isotopic value. However, we saw the exact opposite." Andres said.

"We still don't understand how stromatolites calicify," Dr. Andres said, referring to her research plans. "This information will be key to understanding how organisms form skeletons and when this process - leaving lasting impressions of historical biological data - first began."

Related Links
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
More info on stromatolites
Darwin Today At TerraDaily.com

Pressured By Predators, Lizards See Rapid Shift In Natural Selection
Boston MA (SPX) Nov 17, 2006
Countering the widespread view of evolution as a process played out over the course of eons, evolutionary biologists have shown that natural selection can turn on a dime -- within months -- as a population's needs change. In a study of island lizards exposed to a new predator, the scientists found that natural selection dramatically changed direction over a very short time, within a single generation, favoring first longer and then shorter hind legs.







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