Roger E. Summons, Ph.D.

Professor of Geobiology, Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyRoger E. Summons, Ph.D.’s Website

Project:  Seeking Evidence of Earth’s Earliest Biogeochemical Cycles

This project addresses question #10 of the Simons Foundation Origins Program: What is the earliest record of microbial life? 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 we will interrogate 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 will provide a framework for the interpretation of the data gathered from ancient rocks.


Roger Summons is Professor of Geobiology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to taking up that appointment in 2001 he was at the Australian Geological Survey Organisation, formerly known as the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics in Canberra. Over a period of 18 years at AGSO and BMR he was a member, then leader, of a research team studying the distinctive nature and habitat of Australian petroleum systems and the evolution of the biogeochemical carbon cycle.

At MIT his research group studies the co-evolution of Earth’s early biota with their environment, biological extinction events and the origins of fossil fuels. Professor Summons was awarded BSc (1969) and PhD (1972) degrees in Chemistry from the University of NSW. He also undertook postdoctoral research in the Genetics Department at Stanford University and in the Research Schools of Chemistry and Biological Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra. He was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1998, Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2006, Fellow of the Royal Society in 2008 and is author or co-author of more than 300 research papers in organic chemistry, geochemistry and geomicrobiology.

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