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UCLA 'world summit' to explore ancient life on Earth, and beyond

A UCLA "world summit" will bring together internationally renowned scientists from 12 countries including the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, Australia and India to address ancient microscopic fossils, from July 27 to Aug. 2.

"We are bringing together the world's best scientists in the field of ancient life," said summit organizer J. William Schopf, founder and director of the UCLA Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics' Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life (CSEOL). "Many of the participants have never before met one another. I expect that as a result of this five-day meeting, many of these scholars will collaborate on research."

The scientists will participate in hands-on scientific demonstrations using new state-of-the-science techniques.

"I have asked them to bring their most difficult rock specimens with them," said Schopf, a paleobiologist, geologist, microbiologist and organic geochemist. "People will say, 'Come look at this.'"

Schopf believes that the participants, and their students, will be ready to analyze microscopic fossils inside rocks returned from Mars to search for signs of life.

New research techniques are re-shaping the study of ancient life. High technology equipment allows scientists to look inside rocks and produce sharp three-dimensional images of ancient microscopic fossils inside rocks. The equipment includes Raman spectroscopy, a technique that allows scientists to see the molecular and chemical structure of ancient microorganisms in three dimensions; confocal microscopy, which uses a focused laser beam to make the organic walls of the fossils fluoresce, and enables scientists to take images inside living cells, allowing cells to be viewed in three dimensions; and secondary ion mass spectroscopy to analyze the isotopes in the chemistry of individual fossils.

These new techniques are not available in many countries; Schopf, who helped to develop the techniques, hopes that will change. The scientists will divide into smaller groups in UCLA laboratories for demonstrations of how the new technology works.

"I want them to learn the tricks that we know of how to use these instruments," he said. "I want us to learn from one another.

"In China, a scientist saw a three-dimensional picture of a spherical fossil inside a rock and told me, 'It's like seeing the back side of the moon!' he said. "It is astounding the first time you ever see it. Instead of waiting 20 or 30 years for the knowledge to diffuse, I want to cut through that."

Since his first year as a Harvard graduate student in the 1960s, Schopf had the goal of conducting chemical analysis of, and imaging in three-dimensions, individual microscopic fossils inside a rock, but had no technique to do so until recently.

The world summit is sponsored by CSEOL, with support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute and Elsevier.

Summit participants have expertise in a number of fields studying early life, among them microbiology, molecular biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and geology.

Participants will be: Wladyslaw Altermann (Germany), Stanley Awramik (U.S.), David Bottjer, (U.S.), Nicholas Butterfield (England), Junyuan Chen (China), Thomas Fairchild (Brazil), Tamara N. German, Kathleen Grey (Australia), Hans Hofmann (Canada), Christopher House (U.S.), Anatoliy Kudryavtsev (U.S.), Malgorzata Moczydlowska (Sweden), Konstantin Nagovitsin (Russia), Dorothy Oehler (U.S.), Victor Podkovyrov (Russia), Vibhuti Rai (India), J. William Schopf (U.S.), Vladimir N. Sergeev (Russia), Mukund Sharma (India), Purnima Srivastava (India), Kenichiro Sugitani (Japan), Vinod Tewari (India), Yuichiro Ueno (Japan), Nataliya G. Vorob'Eva (Russia), Malcolm Walter (Australia), Frances Westall (France), Shuhai Xiao (U.S.) and Leiming Yin (China).


Contact: Stuart Wolpert
University of California - Los Angeles

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