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

27 July 2017

Ian Hawes

"What are the limits to life?" and other questions will be addressed by Professor Ian Hawes at his Inaugural Professorial Lecture next month.

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. How did life start on earth and crack the barriers in the way of getting to where it is today? What are the limits to life? And what are indisputable signs of life once there but now gone? These are some of the questions Professor Ian Hawes will address in his Inaugural Professorial Lecture on 15 August.

Analogue sites – places where conditions are believed to mimic those on early earth or other planets – are important to 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.

The earliest records of life in the Earth’s rock record, stromatolites, some more than 3.5 billion years old and interpreted as produced by the trapping and binding of sediment by microbial communities. Over the last decade, Antarctic lakes have emerged as supporting a rich diversity of stromatolites, built by organisms similar to those around at the time. They are enhancing our understanding of life on earth for the billions of years when it supported only simple bacteria and archaea.

Professor Hawes says that diving through the holes through 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 International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research (and its partners), which aims to exploit the unique opportunities of Antarctic lakes to allow us to understand life on early Earth and other planets.

Professor Ian Hawes' Inaugural Professorial Lecture Windows to other worlds: Antarctic lakes, astrobiology and milestone moments for life on ancient earth is on Tuesday 15 August starting at 5.15pm in the Concert Chamber at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato. 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.