At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I work with Ken Williford to explore new ways of analyzing very old microfossils. With the instrumentation being developed at the AstroBiogeoChemistry Laboratory (ABCLab), I am particularly interested in learning whether individual microfossils have distinct carbon isotope fractionation values, which may in turn be compared with microfossil morphology and host rock paleoenvironmental indicators to try to deduce key biological attributes of the original organisms, such as metabolic strategy or ecological complexity. This is important because we understand very little about the paleobiology of Precambrian organisms. Any new sources of information that can help us to reconstruct the biosphere at this time can help us to unlock some of the largest questions in macroevolution and astrobiology.
The ABCLab is the perfect place to be conducting my research for many different reasons. The first is that Ken’s group is developing new techniques for measuring the stable isotope values of small groups of microfossils; eventually, these techniques might be sufficiently refined to enable analysis of individual microfossils. This would substantially ease our ability to make these kinds of analyses for fossils of many different ages, opening up new avenues of future research. Second, NASA is investing in these new techniques in furtherance of objectives for the planned Mars2020 and Mars Sample Return missions. By working with the ABCLab, I am also supporting the overall mission of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Finally, microfossils that will be analyzed include specimens from the Belt Supergroup, which shares some top-level basin topology and sedimentological features that make it an exemplary proxy for select depositional settings on Mars. By using these particular techniques on these particular fossils, it may be possible in the future to make paleoenvironmental comparisons with host sediments from the Belt Supergroup that can help to ground-truth results obtained from Martian samples.