About the Summons Lab

We study organic matter from microbes, environmental samples, and rocks. Ancient rocks and oils contain a rich abundance of hidden information within, including molecular and isotopic signatures of the organisms that existed at the time the organic matter was formed. The goal of our research is to extract and interpret these signals, in order to reconstruct ancient environments and understand how life evolved within them.

Such interaction of the geosphere and the biosphere is how we define the field of geobiology. Through this study, we hope to obtain a better understanding of the timing and context of oxygenic photosynthesis (about 3 billion years ago), the conditions that led to the appearance of animal life on earth, and the causes of major mass extinction events. The techniques we develop might eventually help us detect signs of life on other planets, the science known as Astrobiology. Our lab is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute where we host the MIT Team, and by the Simons Collaboration on Origins of Life (SCOL).

Accelerated Solvent Extractor Accelerated Solvent Extractor

The ASE extracts solid and semisolid samples with liquid solvents at elevated temperatures and pressures for increased efficiency.

Gas Chromatographs Gas Chromatographs

Gas chromatography is the main technique we use to separate out the individual components of very complex mixtures.

High Resolution Mass Spectrometer High Resolution Mass Spectrometer

The autospec combines the separating power of gas chromatography with the sensitivity of mass spectrometric detection.

Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer

Stable isotope analysis for many different types of substances—organic matter, carbonates, gases and individual organic compounds.

Agilent 6000 Series HPLC-MS Agilent 6000 Series HPLC-MS

High Pressure Liquid Chromatography separates compounds, a Quadrupole Time-of-Flight mass spectrometer identifies lipids.

Lab Tour Lab Tour

Click here to venture on a virtual, photographic tour of the Summons lab, its facilities, and instruments.


14 November 2017

“Mummies” tummies to reveal digestive evolution


Dr. Ainara Sistiaga from Summons Lab was recently interviewed by Horizon Magazine on the evolution of human diets.  By studying mummies, researchers want to establish how our gut bacteria has changed over time. Image credit – ‘MNH – Mumie Frau 1’ by Wolfgang Sauber is licenced under CC-S.A 3.0   Mummified bodies from Egypt and […]

14 November 2017

48-Million-Year-Old Wax Discovered in a Bird Fossil


  (The photographs above showing the location (a) and detail of the preserved uropygial gland (b: before sampling in the unprepared fossil; c: after sampling in the prepared fossil.)   A recent study by postdoc fellow Shane O’Reilly from Summons Lab on fossil organic molecules provides palaeontologists with important new insight into how animal soft […]