Ever since life began more than 3.5 billion years ago, our planet has been shaped by the complex interplay between organisms and environment. Seeking to understand how our modern world came into being, we need to develop a robust understanding of geobiological key-processes in the distant past. The only surviving archive that provides primary information about Earth’s history is the geological record. Indeed, rocks potentially encode a wealth of valuable information such as prevailing environmental conditions at the time of deposition and, in some cases, the presence and nature of ancient life. Problematically, however, these records have commonly been obscured or even destroyed by destructive processes (e.g., impacts, plate tectonics, weathering), and potential fingerprints of life might be indistinguishable from products of abiotic processes. Therefore, geobiological quests into our planet’s deep past require a solid knowledge of geomicrobiological processes and the preservation of microbial biosignatures. In this presentation, I will demonstrate how we can reconstruct the geobiology of primordial Earth–life systems by combining field- and laboratory-based analytical techniques from geology, geomicrobiology, and biogeochemistry. This multifaceted approach also includes the parallel investigation of younger analogue systems and experimental work, which provide important means to test and refine rock-based explanatory models. The presentation will illustrate the tremendous potential of multidisciplinary approaches to gain valuable insights into the geobiology of some of our planet’s most ancient habitats. In the long run, such endeavors will help to develop a robust understanding of how life emerged on Earth, and support the ongoing search for life beyond our planet.
Jan-Peter Duda is professor of Geobiology at the University of Göttingen (Germany). He studied geosciences at the University of Bremen (BSc and MSc; 2004–2010) and the University of Göttingen (Dr. rer. nat., with “Summa cum Laude”; 2010–2014). In 2011, he joined the Nanjing Institute for Geology and Palaeontology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences for 6 months, funded by a scholarship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). After completing his doctoral research, he zigzagged between the University of Göttingen (2014–2020) and the University of California Riverside (2018–2019). In 2020, he established his own research group at the University of Tübingen, funded by the prestigious Emmy Noether Program of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). Shortly after, he was appointed as a Juniorprofessor of Sedimentology and Organic Geochemistry (2021). Since September 2022, he is head of the Department of Geobiology in the Geoscience Center at the University of Göttingen. Jan-Peter Duda and his team are broadly interested in the deep and intertwined history of life and Earth. Particular emphasis is placed on microbial metabolisms, which have been powerful drivers of environmental change through our planet’s long history. In order to develop a robust understanding of the distant past, the group integrates studies on the ancient rock record and fossils with investigations of younger analogue systems and experimental work. Their research is truly cross-disciplinary, combining field and laboratory based analytical approaches from paleontology, geomicrobiology, sedimentology, and biogeochemistry. Although largely concerned with the Earth-life system, the geobiology group’s research provides essential information for the identification of habitable worlds and potential signs of life elsewhere in the universe.