Fountain of youth underlies Antarctic Mountains

Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. -  Tim Creyts
Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. – Tim Creyts

Time ravages mountains, as it does people. Sharp features soften, and bodies grow shorter and rounder. But under the right conditions, some mountains refuse to age. In a new study, scientists explain why the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains in the middle of Antarctica looks as young as they do.

The Gamburtsevs were discovered in the 1950s, but remained unexplored until scientists flew ice-penetrating instruments over the mountains 60 years later. As this ancient hidden landscape came into focus, scientists were stunned to see the saw-toothed and towering crags of much younger mountains. Though the Gamburtsevs are contemporaries of the largely worn-down Appalachians, they looked more like the Rockies, which are nearly 200 million years younger.

More surprising still, the scientists discovered a vast network of lakes and rivers at the mountains’ base. Though water usually speeds erosion, here it seems to have kept erosion at bay. The reason, researchers now say, has to do with the thick ice that has entombed the Gamburtsevs since Antarctica went into a deep freeze 35 million years ago.

“The ice sheet acts like an anti-aging cream,” said the study’s lead author, Timothy Creyts, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It triggers a series of thermodynamic processes that have almost perfectly preserved the Gamburtsevs since ice began spreading across the continent.”

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, explains how the blanket of ice covering the Gamburtsevs has preserved its rugged ridgelines.

Snow falling at the surface of the ice sheet draws colder temperatures down, closer to protruding peaks in a process called divergent cooling. At the same time, heat radiating from bedrock beneath the ice sheet melts ice in the deep valleys to form rivers and lakes. As rivers course along the base of the ice sheet, high pressures from the overlying ice sheet push water up valleys in reverse. This uphill flow refreezes as it meets colder temperature from above. Thus, ridgelines are cryogenically preserved.

The oldest rocks in the Gamburtsevs formed more than a billion years ago, in the collision of several continents. Though these prototype mountains eroded away, a lingering crustal root became reactivated when the supercontinent Gondwana ripped apart, starting about 200 million years ago. Tectonic forces pushed the land up again to form the modern Gamburtsevs, which range across an area the size of the Alps. Erosion again chewed away at the mountains until earth entered a cooling phase 35 million years ago. Expanding outward from the Gamburtsevs, a growing layer of ice joined several other nucleation points to cover the entire continent in ice.

The researchers say that the mechanism that stalled aging of the Gamburtsevs at higher elevations may explain why some ridgelines in the Torngat Mountains on Canada’s Labrador Peninsula and the Scandinavian Mountains running through Norway, Sweden and Finland appear strikingly untouched. Massive ice sheets covered both landscapes during the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, but many high-altitude features bear little trace of this event.

“The authors identify a mechanism whereby larger parts of mountains ranges in glaciated regions–not just Antarctica–could be spared from erosion,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University who was not involved in the study. “This is important because these uplands are nucleation centers for ice sheets. If they were to gradually erode during glacial cycles, they would become less effective as nucleation points during later ice ages.”

Ice sheet behavior, then, may influence climate change in ways that scientists and computer models have yet to appreciate. As study coauthor Fausto Ferraccioli, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s airborne geophysics group, put it: “If these mountains in interior East Antarctica had been more significantly eroded then the ice sheet itself
may have had a different history.”

Other Authors

Hugh Carr and Tom Jordan of the British Antarctic Survey; Robin Bell, Michael Wolovick and Nicholas Frearson of Lamont-Doherty; Kathryn Rose of University of Bristol; Detlef Damaske of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources; David Braaten of Kansas University; and Carol Finn of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Copies of the paper, “Freezing of ridges and water networks preserves the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains for millions of years,” are available from the authors.

Scientist Contact

Tim Creyts


Climate change was not to blame for the collapse of the Bronze Age

Scientists will have to find alternative explanations for a huge population collapse in Europe at the end of the Bronze Age as researchers prove definitively that climate change – commonly assumed to be responsible – could not have been the culprit.

Archaeologists and environmental scientists from the University of Bradford, University of Leeds, University College Cork, Ireland (UCC), and Queen’s University Belfast have shown that the changes in climate that scientists believed to coincide with the fall in population in fact occurred at least two generations later.

Their results, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that human activity starts to decline after 900BC, and falls rapidly after 800BC, indicating a population collapse. But the climate records show that colder, wetter conditions didn’t occur until around two generations later.

Fluctuations in levels of human activity through time are reflected by the numbers of radiocarbon dates for a given period. The team used new statistical techniques to analyse more than 2000 radiocarbon dates, taken from hundreds of archaeological sites in Ireland, to pinpoint the precise dates that Europe’s Bronze Age population collapse occurred.

The team then analysed past climate records from peat bogs in Ireland and compared the archaeological data to these climate records to see if the dates tallied. That information was then compared with evidence of climate change across NW Europe between 1200 and 500 BC.

“Our evidence shows definitively that the population decline in this period cannot have been caused by climate change,” says Ian Armit, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bradford, and lead author of the study.

Graeme Swindles, Associate Professor of Earth System Dynamics at the University of Leeds, added, “We found clear evidence for a rapid change in climate to much wetter conditions, which we were able to precisely pinpoint to 750BC using statistical methods.”

According to Professor Armit, social and economic stress is more likely to be the cause of the sudden and widespread fall in numbers. Communities producing bronze needed to trade over very large distances to obtain copper and tin. Control of these networks enabled the growth of complex, hierarchical societies dominated by a warrior elite. As iron production took over, these networks collapsed, leading to widespread conflict and social collapse. It may be these unstable social conditions, rather than climate change, that led to the population collapse at the end of the Bronze Age.

According to Katharina Becker, Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at UCC, the Late Bronze Age is usually seen as a time of plenty, in contrast to an impoverished Early Iron Age. “Our results show that the rich Bronze Age artefact record does not provide the full picture and that crisis began earlier than previously thought,” she says.

“Although climate change was not directly responsible for the collapse it is likely that the poor climatic conditions would have affected farming,” adds Professor Armit. “This would have been particularly difficult for vulnerable communities, preventing population recovery for several centuries.”

The findings have significance for modern day climate change debates which, argues Professor Armit, are often too quick to link historical climate events with changes in population.

“The impact of climate change on humans is a huge concern today as we monitor rising temperatures globally,” says Professor Armit.

“Often, in examining the past, we are inclined to link evidence of climate change with evidence of population change. Actually, if you have high quality data and apply modern analytical techniques, you get a much clearer picture and start to see the real complexity of human/environment relationships in the past.”

Subtle shifts in the Earth could forecast earthquakes, tsunamis

University of South Florida graduate student Jacob Richardson stands beside a completed installation.  The large white disc is the dual frequency antenna.  A portable solar panel that powers the system is visible in the foreground. -  Photo by Denis Voytenko
University of South Florida graduate student Jacob Richardson stands beside a completed installation. The large white disc is the dual frequency antenna. A portable solar panel that powers the system is visible in the foreground. – Photo by Denis Voytenko

Earthquakes and tsunamis can be giant disasters no one sees coming, but now an international team of scientists led by a University of South Florida professor have found that subtle shifts in the earth’s offshore plates can be a harbinger of the size of the disaster.

In a new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, USF geologist Tim Dixon and the team report that a geological phenomenon called “slow slip events” identified just 15 years ago is a useful tool in identifying the precursors to major earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. The scientists used high precision GPS to measure the slight shifts on a fault line in Costa Rica, and say better monitoring of these small events can lead to better understanding of maximum earthquake size and tsunami risk.

“Giant earthquakes and tsunamis in the last decade – Sumatra in 2004 and Japan in 2011 – are a reminder that our ability to forecast these destructive events is painfully weak,” Dixon said.

Dixon was involved in the development of high precision GPS for geophysical applications, and has been making GPS measurements in Costa Rica since 1988, in collaboration with scientists at Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and Georgia Tech. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Slow slip events have some similarities to earthquakes (caused by motion on faults) but release their energy slowly, over weeks or months, and cannot be felt or even recorded by conventional seismographs, Dixon said. Their discovery in 2001 by Canadian scientist Herb Dragert at the Pacific Geoscience Center had to await the development of high precision GPS, which is capable of measuring subtle movements of the Earth.

The scientists studied the Sept. 5, 2012 earthquake on the Costa Rica subduction plate boundary, as well as motions of the Earth in the previous decade. High precision GPS recorded numerous slow slip events in the decade leading up to the 2012 earthquake. The scientists made their measurements from a peninsula overlying the shallow portion of a megathrust fault in northwest Costa Rica.

The 7.6-magnitude quake was one of the strongest earthquakes ever to hit the Central American nation and unleased more than 1,600 aftershocks. Marino Protti, one of the authors of the paper and a resident of Costa Rica, has spent more than two decades warning local populations of the likelihood of a major earthquake in their area and recommending enhanced building codes.

A tsunami warning was issued after the quake, but only a small tsunami occurred. The group’s finding shed some light on why: slow slip events in the offshore region in the decade leading up to the earthquake may have released much of the stress and strain that would normally occur on the offshore fault.

While the group’s findings suggest that slow slip events have limited value in knowing exactly when an earthquake and tsunami will strike, they suggest that these events provide critical hazard assessment information by delineating rupture area and the magnitude and tsunami potential of future earthquakes.

The scientists recommend monitoring slow slip events in order to provide accurate forecasts of earthquake magnitude and tsunami potential.


The authors on the paper are Dixon; his former graduate student Yan Jiang, now at the Pacific Geoscience Centre in British Columba, Canada; USF Assistant Professor of Geosciences Rocco Malservisi; Robert McCaffrey of Portland State University; USF doctoral candidate Nicholas Voss; and Protti and Victor Gonzalez of the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, Universidad Nacional.

The University of South Florida is a high-impact, global research university dedicated to student success. USF is a Top 50 research university among both public and private institutions nationwide in total research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation. Serving nearly 48,000 students, the USF System has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference.

Clues to one of Earth’s oldest craters revealed

The Sudbury Basin located in Ontario, Canada is one of the largest known impact craters on Earth, as well as one of the oldest due to its formation more than 1.8 billion years ago. Researchers who took samples from the site and subjected them to a detailed geochemical analysis say that a comet may have hit the area to create the crater.

“Our analysis revealed a chondritic platinum group element signature within the crater’s fallback deposits; however, the distribution of these elements within the impact structure and other constraints suggest that the impactor was a comet. Thus, it seems that a comet with a chondritic refractory component may have created the world-famous Sudbury basin,” said Joe Petrus, lead author of the Terra Nova paper.

Sediment supply drives floodplain evolution in Amazon Basin

A new study of the Amazon River basin shows lowland rivers that carry large volumes of sediment meander more across floodplains and create more oxbow lakes than rivers that carry less sediment.

The findings have implication for the Amazonian river system, which may be significantly altered by proposed mega-dams that would disrupt sediment supplies.

Researchers from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences examined 20 reaches within the Amazon Basin from Landsat imagery spanning nearly 20 years (1985 to 2013).

They found rivers transporting larger amounts of sediment migrated more, and noted that channel movement did not depend on either the slope of the channel or the river discharge.

The research gives scientists insight into the contrasting behavioural properties of rivers where sediment is an imposed variable – e.g. resulting from glacial, volcanic, or human activity – and rivers were the main sediment supply is from local bank erosion.

Dr José Constantine, Lecturer in Earth Sciences at Cardiff University’s School of Earth & Ocean Sciences and lead author of the paper said: “We found that the speed at which the meanders migrated for each of the rivers studied depended on the river’s supply of sand and silt. The meanders of rivers carrying more sediment migrated faster than those carrying less sediment, and were also more frequently cut off and abandoned to form U-shaped lakes. If sediment loads are reduced — by a dam, for example — meander migration is expected to slow, and thus the reshaping of the floodplain environment is affected.

Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.


Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

New study finds oceans arrived early to Earth

In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line -- the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the 'snow line' (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. -  Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line — the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the ‘snow line’ (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. – Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Earth is known as the Blue Planet because of its oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface and are home to the world’s greatest diversity of life. While water is essential for life on the planet, the answers to two key questions have eluded us: where did Earth’s water come from and when?

While some hypothesize that water came late to Earth, well after the planet had formed, findings from a new study led by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) significantly move back the clock for the first evidence of water on Earth and in the inner solar system.

“The answer to one of the basic questions is that our oceans were always here. We didn’t get them from a late process, as was previously thought,” said Adam Sarafian, the lead author of the paper published Oct. 31, 2014, in the journal Science and a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student in the Geology and Geophysics Department.

One school of thought was that planets originally formed dry, due to the high-energy, high-impact process of planet formation, and that the water came later from sources such as comets or “wet” asteroids, which are largely composed of ices and gases.

“With giant asteroids and meteors colliding, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Horst Marschall, a geologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. “Some people have argued that any water molecules that were present as the planets were forming would have evaporated or been blown off into space, and that surface water as it exists on our planet today, must have come much, much later—hundreds of millions of years later.”

The study’s authors turned to another potential source of Earth’s water— carbonaceous chondrites. The most primitive known meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, were formed in the same swirl of dust, grit, ice and gasses that gave rise to the sun some 4.6 billion years ago, well before the planets were formed.

“These primitive meteorites resemble the bulk solar system composition,” said WHOI geologist and coauthor Sune Nielsen. “They have quite a lot of water in them, and have been thought of before as candidates for the origin of Earth’s water.

In order to determine the source of water in planetary bodies, scientists measure the ratio between the two stable isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and hydrogen. Different regions of the solar system are characterized by highly variable ratios of these isotopes. The study’s authors knew the ratio for carbonaceous chondrites and reasoned that if they could compare that to an object that was known to crystallize while Earth was actively accreting then they could gauge when water appeared on Earth.

To test this hypothesis, the research team, which also includes Francis McCubbin from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico and Brian Monteleone of WHOI, utilized meteorite samples provided by NASA from the asteroid 4-Vesta. The asteroid 4-Vesta, which formed in the same region of the solar system as Earth, has a surface of basaltic rock—frozen lava. These basaltic meteorites from 4-Vesta are known as eucrites and carry a unique signature of one of the oldest hydrogen reservoirs in the solar system. Their age—approximately 14 million years after the solar system formed—makes them ideal for determining the source of water in the inner solar system at a time when Earth was in its main building phase. The researchers analyzed five different samples at the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility—a state-of-the-art national facility housed at WHOI that utilizes secondary ion mass spectrometers. This is the first time hydrogen isotopes have been measured in eucrite meteorites.

The measurements show that 4-Vesta contains the same hydrogen isotopic composition as carbonaceous chondrites, which is also that of Earth. That, combined with nitrogen isotope data, points to carbonaceous chondrites as the most likely common source of water.

“The study shows that Earth’s water most likely accreted at the same time as the rock. The planet formed as a wet planet with water on the surface,” Marschall said.

While the findings don’t preclude a late addition of water on Earth, it shows that it wasn’t necessary since the right amount and composition of water was present at a very early stage.

“An implication of that is that life on our planet could have started to begin very early,” added Nielsen. “Knowing that water came early to the inner solar system also means that the other inner planets could have been wet early and evolved life before they became the harsh environments they are today.

New study shows 3 abrupt pulse of CO2 during last deglaciation

A new study shows that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide that contributed to the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago did not occur gradually, but was characterized by three “pulses” in which C02 rose abruptly.

Scientists are not sure what caused these abrupt increases, during which C02 levels rose about 10-15 parts per million – or about 5 percent per episode – over a period of 1-2 centuries. It likely was a combination of factors, they say, including ocean circulation, changing wind patterns, and terrestrial processes.

The finding is important, however, because it casts new light on the mechanisms that take the Earth in and out of ice age regimes. Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appear this week in the journal Nature.

“We used to think that naturally occurring changes in carbon dioxide took place relatively slowly over the 10,000 years it took to move out of the last ice age,” said Shaun Marcott, lead author on the article who conducted his study as a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University. “This abrupt, centennial-scale variability of CO2 appears to be a fundamental part of the global carbon cycle.”

Some previous research has hinted at the possibility that spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide may have accelerated the last deglaciation, but that hypothesis had not been resolved, the researchers say. The key to the new finding is the analysis of an ice core from the West Antarctic that provided the scientists with an unprecedented glimpse into the past.

Scientists studying past climate have been hampered by the limitations of previous ice cores. Cores from Greenland, for example, provide unique records of rapid climate events going back 120,000 years – but high concentrations of impurities don’t allow researchers to accurately determine atmospheric carbon dioxide records. Antarctic ice cores have fewer impurities, but generally have had lower “temporal resolution,” providing less detailed information about atmospheric CO2.

However, a new core from West Antarctica, drilled to a depth of 3,405 meters in 2011 and spanning the last 68,000 years, has “extraordinary detail,” said Oregon State paleoclimatologist Edward Brook, a co-author on the Nature study and an internationally recognized ice core expert. Because the area where the core was taken gets high annual snowfall, he said, the new ice core provides one of the most detailed records of atmospheric CO2.

“It is a remarkable ice core and it clearly shows distinct pulses of carbon dioxide increase that can be very reliably dated,” Brook said. “These are some of the fastest natural changes in CO2 we have observed, and were probably big enough on their own to impact the Earth’s climate.

“The abrupt events did not end the ice age by themselves,” Brook added. “That might be jumping the gun a bit. But it is fair to say that the natural carbon cycle can change a lot faster than was previously thought – and we don’t know all of the mechanisms that caused that rapid change.”

The researchers say that the increase in atmospheric CO2 from the peak of the last ice age to complete deglaciation was about 80 parts per million, taking place over 10,000 years. Thus, the finding that 30-45 ppm of the increase happened in just a few centuries was significant.

The overall rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the last deglaciation was thought to have been triggered by the release of CO2 from the deep ocean – especially the Southern Ocean. However, the researchers say that no obvious ocean mechanism is known that would trigger rises of 10-15 ppm over a time span as short as one to two centuries.

“The oceans are simply not thought to respond that fast,” Brook said. “Either the cause of these pulses is at least part terrestrial, or there is some mechanism in the ocean system we don’t yet know about.”

One reason the researchers are reluctant to pin the end of the last ice age solely on CO2 increases is that other processes were taking place, according to Marcott, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“At the same time CO2 was increasing, the rate of methane in the atmosphere was also increasing at the same or a slightly higher rate,” Marcott said. “We also know that during at least two of these pulses, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation changed as well. Changes in the ocean circulation would have affected CO2 – and indirectly methane, by impacting global rainfall patterns.”

“The Earth is a big coupled system,” he added, “and there are many pieces to the puzzle. The discovery of these strong, rapid pulses of CO2 is an important piece.”

Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”


This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

Life in Earth’s primordial sea was starved for sulfate

This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia -- a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth's early oceans. -  Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans. – Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.

The Earth’s ancient oceans held much lower concentrations of sulfate–a key biological nutrient–than previously recognized, according to research published this week in Science.

The findings paint a new portrait of our planet’s early biosphere and primitive marine life. Organisms require sulfur as a nutrient, and it plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

“Our findings are a fraction of previous estimates, and thousands of time lower than current seawater levels,” says Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans–and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”

UBC, University of Southern Denmark, CalTech, University of Minnesota Duluth, and University of Maryland researchers used new techniques and models to calibrate fingerprints of bacterial sulfur metabolisms in Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans.

Measuring these fingerprints in rocks older than 2.5 billion years, they discovered sulfate 80 times lower than previously thought.

The more sensitive fingerprinting provides a powerful tool to search for sulfur metabolisms deep in Earth’s history or on other planets like Mars.


Previous research has suggested that Archean sulfate levels were as low as 200 micromolar– concentrations at which sulfur would still have been abundantly available to early marine life.

The new results indicate levels were likely less than 2.5 micromolar, thousands of times lower than today.

What the researchers did

Researchers used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

They found that microbial sulfur metabolisms impart large fingerprints even when sulfate is scarce.

The team used the techniques on samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia–a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans.

“New measurements in these unique modern environments allow us to use numerical models to reconstruct ancient ocean chemistry with unprecedented resolution” says Sergei Katsev an Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.

Using models informed by sulfate isotope fractionation in Lake Matano, they established a new calibration for sulfate isotope fractionation that is extensible to the Earth’s oceans throughout history. The researchers then reconstructed Archean seawater sulfate concentrations using these models and an exhaustive compilation of sulfur isotope data from Archean sedimentary rocks.


Crowe initiated the research while a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark.