Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This course introduces the parallel evolution of life and the environment. Life processes are influenced by chemical and physical processes in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and the solid earth. In turn, life can influence chemical and physical processes on our planet. This course explores the concept of life as a geological agent and examines the interaction between biology and the earth system during the roughly 4 billion years since life first appeared.


Stanley, Steven M. Earth System History. W. H. Freeman, 2008. ISBN: 9781429233491.

Kump, Lee R., James F. Kasting, and Robert G. Crane. The Earth System. Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN: 9780131420595.

Madigan, Martinko, and F. Parker. Brock Biology of Microorganisms. Benjamin Cummings, 2008. ISBN: 9780132324601.

Morel, M. M., and J. Hering. Principles and Applications of Aquatic Chemistry. Wiley-Interscience, 1993. ISBN: 9780471548966.

Recommended Readings

Wills, Christopher, and Jeffrey Bada. The Spark of Life: Darwin And The Primeval Soup. Basic Books, 2000. ISBN: 9780738201962. [Preview with Google Books]

Cesare, Emiliani. Planet Earth: Cosmology, Geology and the Evolution of Life and Environment. Cambridge University Press, 1992. ISBN: 9780521409490. [Preview with Google Books]

Broecker, Wallace S. How to Build a Habitable Planet. Columbia Univ Trustees, 1998. ISBN: 9780961751111.

Additional readings provided for some lectures.


Participation in class discussions 25%
Problem sets/assignments 15%
Weekly quizzes 10%
Final blog piece 20%
Midterm exam 15%
Final exam 15%

Lecture Schedule

1 Overview of course; What is life? Can it be defined? Brief history of paleontology and geobiology; Life as a geological agent. Sedimentary environments and processes; Stratigraphy (John Smith??); Isostasy; Plate tectonics; Water and life; Habitable zone; Radiative balance; Greenhouse gases. Faint Young Sun.  
2 Time scales of major events in formation of Universe and Solar System; Abundance of elements. Geochronology; Introduction to geological processes, rocks and minerals. Planetary accretion and differentiation. Introduction to the geological timescale and major transitions in Earth history. Problem set 1 due
3 Evolution of other terrestrial planets (Mars).  
4 Prebiotic chemistry, Nucleic acids, Amino Acids and Chirality, Origins of life, Panspermia; Luca and the three domains; Universal tree of life. Woese paper instead of problem set
5 Isotopes; isotopic nomenclature; definition of atm%, ratio, α, δ, ε; how to do simple isotopic calculations including mass balance; CHNOS standards, what they are and the forms that are prepared for analysis; what processes cause isotopic fractionation including C, H and N in OM and C and O in limestones; S in pyrite and sulfate; ballpark δ values of C, O, S in main reservoirs and biomass.

Isotope paper: Des Marais C-cycle

Isotope problem set 1 due.
6 More about fractionated isotopes; S in pyrite and sulfate; How H&O are fractionated in the hydrological cycle; How (roughly) C&H fractionation occurs in lipids. Biogeochemical carbon cycle.  
7 Discussion of isotope papers. Fike seminar in EAPS.  
8 Redox processes. Isotope problem set 2 due
9 Redox processes II, examples from various environments. Anaerobic metabolisms.  
10 Anoxygenic and oxygenic photosynthesis; BIF; Evidence for early life on Earth; Stromatolites; Microfossils. Microbial sediments. Problem set 2 due.
11 Geological evidence of photosynthesis and oxygenation. Early atmosphere. Oxygenation of the ocean/atmosphere system. Anbar and Knoll. Redox transitions.  
12 Geological evidence of photosynthesis and oxygenation, Part II. Early atmosphere. Oxygenation of the ocean/atmosphere system. Anbar and Knoll. Redox transitions. Problem set 3 due.
  Midterm exam  
13 Neoproterozoic carbon cycle and environmental oscillations. Snowball Earth. Papers for a class discussion
14 Evolution and Radiation of Photosynthetic Organisms; Successions of plankton in the ocean. Radiation of vascular plants.  
15 Ediacaran fauna. Evolution and radiation of animals. Evidence for early animals. Animal body plans. Sponges. C. Marshall paper Deadline to decide on the problem to write about for the final blog piece.
16 Reefs and carbonate precipitation through time: evidence for changes in ocean chemistry and biology. Impact of biomineralization on carbon cycle.  
17 Biomineralization and biominerals. Ray Pierrehumbert seminar in EAPS.  
18 Mass Extinctions incl. Permian-Triassic event.  
19 Mesozoic time. Geology and biology. K-T boundary, LPTM. Volcanism, carbon cycle perturbation or impact?  
20 Life in extreme environments.  
21 Molecular microbiology and paleontology. PCR, genomics, trees. Modern microbially-dominated ecosystems.  
22 Class discussion of a paper related to environmental microbiology.  
23 Student presentations of blog pieces (extended to recitation time).  
  Oral exam  
  Exam week No written final, blog pieces due