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Geoscientists share findings with colleagues

The search for ancient life was among the hot topics this week as seven students and faculty members from Binghamton University gave presentations during the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting.

Faculty members Tim Lowenstein and Robert Demicco spoke about their research during the conference in Salt Lake City, as did students Michael Timofeeff, Brian Schubert, Bridget McCollam, Juan Carlos Corona and Melissa Hudley.

Timofeeff and Schubert both work with Lowenstein, trying to establish or disprove whether a bacterium found by another group of scientists is really 250 million years old, as they claimed in a 2000 paper published in Nature. The bacterium was cultured from a specimen found within a pocket of liquid — called a “fluid inclusion” — trapped in a salt crystal.

The story caused quite a stir for a number of reasons, Lowenstein explained. If it’s true, it means that life on one planet could seed life on another. It also could help establish the rate of evolution and provide details about ways species can survive during times of crisis. Researchers also think this information should influence Mars exploration.

But other scientists aren’t entirely con-vinced the bacterium is truly as old as the authors of the Nature piece claim.

So now work is under way at Binghamton and elsewhere to take a look at how long DNA can survive and whether other ancient microorganisms can be found in fluid inclusions.

Timofeeff, a post-doctoral student, is trying to identify micro-organisms and DNA preserved in fluid inclusions that are much younger: up to 150,000 years old. Using samples from Saline Valley, Calif., he has begun to culture and sequence DNA from microorganisms. He has also captured images of these tiny organisms.

Schubert, a master’s student, came to Binghamton in 2004 because he was so excited by the prospect of doing research on this topic. He said the field is evolving so quickly that most of his research involves material published within the past five years.

Schubert is studying samples from Death Valley, Calif., and has taken the first images of microorganisms inside 97,000- year-old fluid inclusions.

The Salt Lake City conference will be his first opportunity to present research at a national meeting. He said it’s a measure of just how hot this topic is that his paper was accepted for presentation even though he began working on this research in January.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08