13 July 2016

Latest Summons Lab Research


From the origin’s of complex life to the timing of oxygen’s first appearance in the atmosphere, the Summons lab has published a number of exciting and important papers in recent weeks.

David recently published his combined biomarker and genomic study in PNAS. Here, he presented conclusive evidence that sea sponges were indeed the source of the unusual biomarkers in 640 million year old rocks. This ‘sponge biomarker hypothesis’ was first proposed by Roger and co-workers, and this new work provides further evidence that sea sponges were one of the earliest animals on the scene on Earth. Read more about this in a number of media outlets such as The Independent, Newser, Boston CBS, TechTimes and MIT News.

In May in Scientific Advances, Genming published evidence for a rapid oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere 2.33 billion years ago and a precise constraint on the timing of the Great Oxidation Event (known as the GOE). Media coverage for this include the Air & Space Magazine published by the Smithsonian, Phys.org, and MIT News.

Xiaolei recently published two papers providing significant advances in our knowledge of the diagenetic fate and structural diversity of glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraether lipids. He published his work in the journals Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta and Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry. Xiaolei’s work involved collaborations with members of the Bosak Lab in MIT and the Hinrich’s Lab in Bremen.

In June, Shane published a paper in Geobiology studying ooids from The Bahamas. Ooids are accretionary carbonate grains that occur in many Precambrian and Phanerozoic rocks, and provide an insight into the environmental/depositional conditions and seawater chemistry in marine environments through time. However, the formation of these enigmatic grains is actively debated. In this paper, Shane demonstrates that the major source of organic matter within ooids is from benthic microbial biofilms. Organic matter bound within ooid grains is old and altered, having been subject to microbial decomposition, likely under reducing conditions. The association of bacteria and these molecular signals with ooid carbonate crystals suggests that these biological processes may contribute to ooid formation.

10 April 2016

Cambridge Science Festival!



The Cambridge Science Festival is fast approaching us! Starting on Friday April 15th, the festival is an annual 10-day celebration of science, technology, engineering, art and math in Cambridge and beyond. Collaborators for the festival include MIT, Harvard University, the City of Cambridge and the Museum of Science. Every spring, the festival makes science accessible, engaging and fun for everyone through a host of exhibitions, activities and multicultural events. This year the festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and it promises to be a memorable one. The Summons Lab will be actively involved, together with other members of MIT EAPS department and the NAI Astrobiology Team Foundations for Complex Life.

The Science Carnival & Robot Zoo will happen on Saturday, April 16. This is an action-packed free carnival with science and technology exhibitors from around the globe. The Summons Lab and the NASA Astrobiology Institute Foundations for Complex Life time will have two stands side by side. We will be inviting everyone to come along and take their shot at the recently developed app game ‘Earth History in 60 Seconds’. This is an exciting, fast-paced, multiplayer game testing your knowledge of major events in Earth’s long history in 60 seconds! The app is available for download on iTunes here. We will also be providing an interactive demonstration and discussion of the amazing science of ‘molecular fossils’. Roll your sleeves up and join us for a molecular fossil hunt! The carnival will be on at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin Field House, Cambridge Public Library, Broadway and Ellery Street. It will run from 12:00-4:00pm.

Christy Grettenberger will be leading guided tours of ‘A Walk Through Geologic Time’. Earth’s history stretches back over 4.567 billion years—how are we supposed to grasp such a vast number? We’ve shrunken it down to a third of a mile along the Charles River, and invite you to join us on a walk through time to tour the many incredible events during Earth’s long and storied history. The tours will run on April 15th & 16th at 5:30 pm, and on April 17th at 11 am and 5:30 pm. All tours will meet at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Memorial Drive (MIT side), lasts approximately 45 minutes and are totally FREE!

Shane will be given a science outreach talk for CafeSci Boston (presented by NOVA). His talk is titled ‘Hunting for fossil fat in Earth’s History’. The event will be held at Le Laboratoire (650 East Kendall Street) on Tuesday 19th April from 7 to 8pm. The talk is free, informal and open to the public. Here is a link to the event on Eventbrite and Boston Calendar.

Check out the full list of events for the Cambridge Science Festival on the festival website and the blog. A detailed calendar of events is available here.

9 April 2016

GRC Geobiology meeting 2016 in Galveston


The GRC Geobiology meeting was held in early February in Galveston, Texas. The venue was the magnificent Hotel Galvez and was chaired by David Fike and Tanja Bosak. The meeting brought together a core group of experts from diverse fields, all with common objectives in attempting to answer some of the most important questions in Geobiology today. The meeting was attended by molecular biologists, microbial ecologists, geochemists, paleontologists, and geologists among others. Topics were broad and spanned life’s early beginnings to modern biogeochemical processes. The aim of this meeting was to also identify future research directions and to foster and encourage continued interest from the academic and industrial community. The Summons Lab was represented by Shane and Xiaolei, who both presented posters of their recent work. Many members of the Bosak lab were also in attendance, as well as former members of the Summons Lab.  The meeting was very successful and it was clear that all involved came away with much enthusiasm and ideas.

Image credit: Gordon Research Conferences

Image credit: Gordon Research Conferences



9 April 2016

The Summons Lab welcomes two recent additions to the group


The Summons Lab welcomes two new postdoctoral scientists – Ainara Sistiaga and Heather Throckmorton.

Ainara is no stranger to the Summons Lab and to MIT, as she spent time hereas a visiting student during her postgraduate studies. Ainara’s research is focused on exploiting the organic molecular information preserved in sediments, with particular emphasis on the paleodietary record. She combines organic geochemistry and paleolithic archaeology to provide greater insight into the dietary role of meat and plants during human evolution. One interesting aspect of her work involves the use of faecal biomarkers (sterols, bile acids and other potential novel indicators) as a source of paleodietary information. For an insight into Ainara’s work, check out this MIT news story on neanderthal diet.



Heather arrives from Los Alamos National Laboratory where she was a postdoctoral scientist. Heather studied  geology at the University of Southern Maine before headingwest to University of California, Davis where she received her doctorate. Heather has expertise in soil biogeochemistry and has previously studied the impacts of microbial biomass types on soil carbon stabilization (and how soil matrices effect the former), as well as pathways and fate of dissolved methane and inorganic carbon in Arctic tundra watersheds. She joins the group as an NAI-funded fellow and will be leading and collaborating in a diverse range of astrobiology projects.

3 January 2016

Microenergy 2015


The third international workshop on microbial life under extreme energy limitation – Microenergy 2015, was held in the spectacular setting of Sandbjerg Manor near Sonderborg in southern Denmark from September 21st – 25th.

Aerial view of Sandbjerg Manor in Southern Denmark. Image Credit: Aarhus University, http://www.sandbjerg.dk/en/

Aerial view of Sandbjerg Manor in Southern Denmark (Image credit: Aarhus University, http://www.sandbjerg.dk/en/)

View of Sandbjerg Manor. Image credit: Shane O'Reilly

View of Sandbjerg Manor (Image credit: Shane O’Reilly)

The workshop was convened by Jan Amend (University of Southern California), Tori Hoehler (NASA Ames) and Bo Barker Jørgensen (Aarhus University). It brought together some of the leading researchers from a variety of fields in a small, informal and intensive setting (70 attendees), with the objective of discussing and stimulating new thinking in the area of microbial energy limitations and the limits of microbial life.

Workshop participants outside Sandbjerg Manor

Workshop participants outside Sandbjerg Manor (Image Credit: Bo Barker Jorgensen)

The Summons Lab was represented by Shane. He presented some of his results from an ongoing project with Sharon on the Oman Ophiolite and serpentinite-hosted ecosystems. Shane discussed the occurrence of unusual lipids and stable carbon isotope signatures preserved in travertine sampled from Oman. He also presented some of his work in shallow methane seeps at a pockmark field in Dunmanus, Ireland.

Shane discussing his poster with Prof. Jack Middelburg (Utrecht)

Shane discussing his poster with Prof. Jack Middelburg, Utrecht University. (Image Credit: Bo Barker Jorgensen)

The workshop consisted of keynote and invited lectures, discussion sessions, poster sessions (in a converted distillery), as well as a number of working group break-out sessions to explore and discuss topics in further detail, and identify future research trends and potential. The final day brought together a synthesis of results and findings from the workshop.

The lectures took place in a former stable wing, now converted to an impressive auditorium.

The lectures took place in a former stable wing, now converted to an impressive auditorium. Image Credit: Bo Barker Jorgensen.

Working group break-out sessions. Image Credit: Bo Barker Jorgensen.

Working group break-out sessions. Image Credit: Bo Barker Jorgensen.

3 January 2016

International Meeting on Organic Geochemistry (IMOG 2015)



The 27th International Meeting on Organic Geochemistry (IMOG 2015) was held in Prague from September 13th – 18th, and brought together over 500 of the world’s leading researchers and graduate students in organic geochemistry. Topics and themes included petroleum systems, paleoclimate, soil biogeochemistry, biodegradation, archaeology, analytical methods and evolution of complex life.

St. Anna and the St. Vitus Cathedral — at Charles Bridge. (Image credit: Ross Williams)

St. Anna and the St. Vitus Cathedral — at Charles Bridge. (Image credit: Ross Williams)

Ross and Shane both presented on Monday in the Earth and life history session. Ross presented his work on Early-Middle Equatorial Eocene of North-western India, while Shane presented his work on the potential microbial role in ooid formation and implications for their utility as molecular paleoenvironmental records. Ainara, who recently returned to the Summons Lab as a new postdoc, presented her research on utilizing faecal biomarkers in non-human primates to explore the origins of ancestral hominin meat consumption. On Wednesday morning, David provided the audience with an excellent plenary talk titled ‘Sterols, rocks, and molecular clock’. David’s talk was followed by Emily’s later that afternoon. Emily presented some of her recent exciting findings on the diversity of bacterial hopanoids in Antarctic lake microbial mats and structures.

On Wednesday evening, the gala dinner took place at Zofin Palace on an island on the Vltava River. Attendees, were transported to the venue, treated to a champagne reception, before being escorted into the palace for a fantastic evening of great food, music and fun.


Champagne reception prior to the gala dinner at Zofin Palace (Image credit: Guarant International)


The gala dinner at Zofin Palace, with members and friends of the Summons Lab in the foreground (Image credit: Guarant International)

On Friday morning, Xiaolei completed the contributions to IMOG 2015 from the Summons Lab. He gave an impressive talk on his recent work investigating the predominant parallel glycerol arrangement of archaeal tetraethers in marine sediments. Overall, it was a very successful and productive meeting. The countdown to IMOG 2017 in Florence has commenced!

14 September 2015

IMOG 2015 kicks off this week in Prague!



The 27th International Meeting on Organic Geochemistry kicks off this week in Prague, and the Summons Lab will be out in strength with a range of talks and posters being presented over the course of the week. There will be up to 600 people attending and presenting on a range of topics from biogochemistry to petroleum geochemistry. Looking forward to meeting up with previous lab members, current collaborators and plenty of new organic geochemists!


13 August 2015

Genming and Xiaolei to present at Goldschmidt2015 next week!


Goldschmidt logo

Genming and Xiaolei will be representing the Summons Lab in Prague next week for the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference. This will be the 25th anniversary of the meeting, and to celebrate the organising committee will have 25 plenary talks highlighting 25 major advances in geochemistry over the last quarter century. At 15:45 on Thursday, Genming will present his work on Rapid Oxygenation of Earth’s Atmosphere at 2330 million years ago. Also on Thursday, Xiaolei will present his work in collaboration with the Bosak Lab on novel ring-containing tetrether lipids in the stratified Green Lake in Upstate New York. Former lab member, Jessica Whiteside, will also be presenting her work on constraining TEX86 temperatures based on her work on Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 from the Central North Atlantic.

Best of luck to Genming, Xiaolei and Jessica!

13 August 2015

The Summons Lab go to Chicago for AbSciCon2015



The Astrobiology Science Conference 2015 (AbSciCon2015) was held at the Hilton in Chicago on June 15-19. The Summons Lab was well represented, with postdocs and postgraduate students presenting oral and poster presentations of their work. The conference brings together scientists who work on the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology. The focus of AbSciCon2015 was on habitability in our solar system and beyond, and the origin and evolution of life on early Earth. Summons Lab research presented at the meeting was funded by a variety of sources such as NASA Astrobiology Institute, the Simons Collaboration on Origins of Life, the Agouron Institute, the Irish Research Council and the Marie Curie Actions Programme. There was an abundance of fascinating panel discussions, plenary sessions, and oral and poster sessions over the course of the week. Here are some of the highlights from the Summons Lab.

Tuesday morning kicked off with a fascinating panel discussion on biosignatures of life, which included Roger as an expert panel member (image below courtesy of @dstryco).

Roger AbSciCon

On Tuesday, many members, and collaborators, of the Summons Lab presented their work in the session about how studying modern microbes can inform our understanding of ancient Earth ecosystems. Emily presented her exciting recent work on biological diversity of microbial structures in Antarctic ice-covered lakes, and did a great job. Bosak Lab member and Summons Lab collaborator, Sharon Newman, presented her work on cyanobacterial fossilization by clay minerals. Sharon gave a great presentation and received much interest during questions, which extended into the break.

David did a very impressive job, both chairing a session, and delivering an excellent talk investigating the sponge sterol biomarker hypothesis using comparative genomics and organic geochemical approaches. Shane presented his recent work on the microbial contribution to ooid formation from a Pigeon Cay in the Bahamas and its broader implications for the meaning of these enigmatic grains in the Geological Record. Former Summons Lab member, Paula Welander, and recent addition to Geobiology at MIT, Gregory Fournier, also gave excellent presentations in this session.

On Thursday, Genming presented his impressive recent work using bulk carbon isotopes and stratigraphy to reconstruct autotrophic microbial responses after the Paleoproterozoic Great Oxidation Event. Ross also did a great job and got a lot of interest and positive feedback when he presented his work reconstructing terrestrial plant and marine algal responses to Eocene warming using biomarker and stable isotope records from his field site in NW India. Mary Beth, a visiting student from Georgia Tech and NASA Ames, also presented her work on the preservation of lipid biomarkers in the Atacama Desert in Chile. On Friday, former Summons Lab postdoc Christian Hallmann gave a talk on the use of stable nitrogen isotopes of Ediacaran porphyrins to gain an insight into Neoproterozoic nitrogen cycling.

It was a great week for the Summons Lab in Chicago, and looking forward to the next AbSciCon conference!


16 July 2014

The Pyroprobe—How It Works and What It Can Do


Summons lab postdoc Kristen Miller recently gave a presentation to the lab group about the capabilities and operating procedures of the CDS 5250T Pyroprobe, an instrument that allows (amongst other things) whole-rock samples and entire microfossils to be analyzed by GCMS. We have posted a summary of her presentation to the Facilities section of our website here.