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Windows to other worlds: Antarctic lakes, astrobiology and milestone moments for life on ancient earth

15th Aug 2017 5:15pm

Professor Ian Hawes - 2017 Inaugural Professorial Lecture

As our ability to extend observations beyond earth improves, planetary scientists are looking anew to the potential for life on other planets – astrobiology.

But it’s about more than hunting for ET. Understanding how to look for extant, extinct or nascent life has astrobiologists looking backwards as well as outwards.
Analogue sites – places where conditions are believed to mimic those on early Earth or other planets – are important for developing an understanding of what life might look like and leave behind, and Antarctic lakes are emerging as important analogues for a range of key moments.
Over the last decade, Antarctic lakes have emerged as supporting a rich and diversity of stromatolites, built by organisms similar to those around at that time. “They are enhancing our understanding of life on earth for the billions of years when it supported only simple bacteria and archaea,” says Professor Hawes.
He says diving through holes of thick ice of Antarctic lakes is “like dropping down a time tunnel and emerging in the microbial landscapes of the Precambrian”. Research on these Antarctic communities is shedding new insights into the conditions and organisation of life in that time, and what would be indisputable signs of life on planets where it once existed, but no longer.
An aquatic biologist, Professor Hawes is based in the University’s Coastal Marine Field Station in Tauranga. His research expertise includes geobiology, microbial ecology, plant physiology, limnology and oceanography.
Talking about extraordinary events in the evolution of life on earth such as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) and the Cryogenian crisis, Professor Hawes will also discuss the only known modern “oxygen oasis” he recently discovered with his collaborators in Lake Fryxell, Antarctica.
In his Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Professor Hawes will explain work being undertaken at the University’s centre for Antarctic research (and its partners).
Professor Ian Hawes’ Inaugural Professorial Lecture will be held at the Academy on Tuesday 15 August starting at 5.15pm. It is free and open to the public. Parking is free after 4.30pm in the University of Waikato’s Gate 1 (Knighton Road) carpark.