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Unit information: Geobiology in 2015/16

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Unit name Geobiology
Unit code EASC20024
Credit points 10
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2D (weeks 19 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Donoghue
Open unit status Not open

Successful completion of the year 1 curriculum in either the Environmental Geoscience, Geology, Geology and Biology or Palaeontology and Evolution degree programme.



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


Geobiology is the study of the interactions that occur between the biosphere (living organisms and their products) and the geosphere (the Earth and its atmosphere). Geobiology encompasses the fields of astrobiology, biogeochemistry, geomicrobiology, isotope geochemistry and palaeobiology.

The unit has the immodest aim of unraveling the majority of evolutionary history – from life’s origin, through LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor), the emergence of unicellular ‘bacterial’ lineages that still dominate life on Earth, to the origin of eukaryotes and conclude with the origin of animals. This is the portion of evolutionary history that is not conventionally taught, because the evidence cannot be read simply from the fossil record, but encompasses disciplines as diverse as biogeochemistry, molecular biology and isotope geochemistry. Organised around the architecture of the Tree of Life, this unit will explore not only the multifarious lines of evidence for the evolutionary emergence of various groups, but also their consequence for shaping the biosphere, the evolution of biogeochemical cycles and global environmental change.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit you will be able to:

  • Describe how the branches in the tree of life are arranged, the evidence supporting their arrangement, and be able to exploit tree topologies for their predictions concerning the sequential order of lineage divergence
  • Critically evaluate competing hypotheses on the origin of life
  • Describe and explain the inter-relationships between life and geochemical processes at scales ranging from individual organic molecules
  • Assess the implications of isotopic and biogeochemical data for detecting life and its interactions with the abiotic environment
  • Describe and give examples of the effect that life has had on the Earth's geochemical cycles
  • Describe and give examples of the effect that life has had on the formation of various geological deposits of economic importance.
  • Critically evaluate the various methods employed in calibrating the tree of life to time.
  • Describe how molecular developmental genetics informs the processes underpinning the divergence of animal bodyplans

Teaching details

Lectures and practicals

Assessment Details

This unit is assessed based on a closed examination in the summer exam period. Assessment will be completed in accordance with the University Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes, available online at

Reading and References

There is no set textbook for this course, but the following book contains relevant information:

Knoll, A.H., Canfield, D.E. & Konhauser, K.O. 2012. Fundamentals of geobiology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Other useful reference books include:

Bromham, L. 2008. Reading the story in DNA. Oxford University Press; Carroll, S. B., Grenier, J. K. and Weatherbee, S. D., 2001. From DNA to diversity: molecular genetics and the evolution of animal design. Blackwell Science, Malden.