GEOBIOLOGY

The recent emergence of geobiology into a mature field was preceded by a long gestation period, beginning with the pioneering studies of the earth’s surface by James Hutton more than two centuries ago. By the beginning of the 20th century, the great Russian polymath Vladimir Vernadsky focused more explicitly on the influence of the biosphere (including human activities) on geological processes, and the term geobiology was first used soon afterward by the Dutch biologist Lourens Bass Becking in 1934. Most recently, the extensive writings of the independent scientist James Lovelock served to highlight the role of life in influencing the surface environment of the earth.1

Awareness of the importance of geobiology was widened by technologies that revealed new kinds of organisms that flourish in remote and extreme environments. Discoveries of how microbes contribute to geochemical reactions or react with the geosphere in novel ways have stirred the excitement of many who seek solutions to a wide array of environmental and resource challenges. Among the existing disciplines that have fed the growth of geobiology are geochemistry, geohydrology, oceanography, microbiology, environmental studies, biogeochemistry, ecology, molecular biology, genomics, paleobiology, and mineralogy.

The interaction of biological and geological thinking developed over many decades, but the formal birth of the new field happened quickly. It was stimulated in part by the report of a colloquium held in December 2000 by the American Academy of Microbiology, which formally described geobiology as “research that attempts to understand the interface between the biosphere and the geosphere.” The report was followed by the decision of the Geological Society of America to create the new Geobiology and Geomicrobiology Division in May 2001 and then by the decisions of Elsevier Science to publish Virtual Journal of Geobiology in 2002 and of Blackwell Publishing to launch the new journal Geobiology in 2003. The University of Southern California Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies held an “International Training Course in a Rapidly Evolving Field: Geobiology” in June 2004.2

1  

Lovelock’s assertion that the “planet Gaia” is a “self-regulating” system has stirred controversy, but his elucidation of biosphere-geosphere interactions is nonetheless extensive.

2  

See the colloquium report “Geobiology: Exploring the Interface Between the Biosphere and the Geosphere, 2001, at http://www.asm.org/Academy/index.asp?bid=2132.



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