Professors Tanja Bosak, Mick Follows, and Roger Summons are all recent awardees of the Simons Foundation, a private foundation established in 1994 to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences through sponsorship of a range of programs that aim to promote a deeper understanding of our world.
The primary focus of the Simons Foundation’s Mathematics and the Physical Sciences (MPS) program is on "the theoretical sciences radiating from mathematics: in particular, the fields of mathematics, theoretical computer science and theoretical physics."
Although the Foundation had supported basic research in mathematics and physics for many years at institutions around the world, in 2009 the mode of their support changed with the introduction of grant opportunities with open application procedures. Three EAPS investigators, Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Geobiology Tanja Bosak, Associate Professor Mick Follows, and Professor of Geobiology Roger Summons have so far benefited from generous funding through subsequent foundation grants.
Tanja Bosak recieved funding as part of to the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. Her project explores signatures of biological and environmental co-evolution on the early Earth.
Sedimentary rocks from shallow water environments store a 3.5 billion year long record of interactions between early life and its habitats. However, it is currently unclear what chemicals supported ecosystems in these habitats, how microbes moved and colonized sediments, whether microbes helped form rocks and precipitate rock-forming minerals and when the early light-harvesting microbes became able to evolve oxygen. Answers to these questions, inferred from the shapes of rocks and traces of chemical signals, require better constraints on signals that can be produced and preserved in the presence of microbial communities that do not evolve oxygen. Using analytical techniques at a range of scales, from visible to those smaller than a microbial cell, investigators in Bosak's team are investigating these signals in communities of light-harvesting microbes that colonize sediments, promote the precipitation of rock-forming minerals and shape sediments under a range of chemical conditions relevant for the early Earth and other young planets. Insights from the shapes and chemical properties of microbially-produced structures and minerals in the laboratory will then used to reconstruct microbial processes from geologic samples.
Mick Follows received funding as part of to the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) for work interpreting the organization of microbial communities in the North Pacific using theory and numerical simulations.
Natural microbial populations can appear bewilderingly complex, with assemblages of organisms spanning many orders of magnitude in size, diverse biochemical functionality, and extremely rich genetic variation. In any system scientists seek to understand which actors are present, which are absent, and why? What are the consequences for the ecosystem function and the flow of elements in that environment? Idealized theory and numerical simulations provide a means to synthesize and organize understanding of the pressures that shape microbial systems. They help frame hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory and field.
In this collaborative effort Follows and his group is employing data, theory and numerical simulations to test the hypothesis that the large-scale horizontal and vertical structures of the microbial communities of North Pacific Subtropical Gyre reflect a system close to equilibrium, organized by resource supply ratios. Through this work they are seeking to develop new, quantitative descriptions of the costs and benefits to the individual of specific functionality, including nitrogen fixation, and of both competition and cooperation between diverse microbes. Their basin-scale numerical simulations of the circulation, chemistry and ecosystem of the North Pacific are providing new means to illustrate and explore the large-scale consequences of these small-scale interactions.
Roger Summons also received funding as part of the Simons Collaboration on the Origin of Life. His specific project, Seeking Evidence of Earth’s Earliest Biogeochemical Cycles, seeks to answer the questions: What is the earliest record of microbial life? and How can geochemistry constrain the timing and environments of the origin and early evolution of life?
The quest to understand the nature, physiological capabilities and habitats of early life on Earth remains a challenging scientific issue, due to a slate of cryptic clues and a paucity of credibly preserved historical records. Using state-of-the art mass spectrometric methods researchers in Summons' lab are interrogating the best preserved sedimentary records of organic and inorganic carbon, nitrogen and sulfur for isotopic and molecular evidence of biogeochemical cycling of these elements, autotrophic carbon assimilation, and light-harvesting processes. Studies of contemporary natural settings, and laboratory experiments, provide a framework for the interpretation of the data gathered from ancient rocks.
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