Syllabus for the bilingual teaching and learning course 《Geobiology》

                About Geobiology:: research and education

Geobiology is an exciting and rapidly developing research discipline that opens new perspective in understanding Earth as a system. This relatively new interdiscipline, which is more of a research agenda than a formal discipline, focuses on the processes of and evolution of the coupled Earth-life system through time, especially attacking problems which are inextricable for a single discipline like geology and biology, alone. At its heart, geobiological research merges disciplines in the earth and biological sciences including, but not restricted to, microbiology, microbial ecology, plant physiology, molecular biology, paleontology, early evolutionary ecology, geology, mineralogy, sedimentology, geochemistry, oceanography, and astrobiology. Therefore, geobiological research can be viewed as a synergism between Earth science and life science, which explores the interface between the geosphere (Earth’s surface environment) and the biosphere. Seemingly, it is a simple blending of numerous disciplines. Owing to providing us a more holistic way of thinking, this blending is expected to be particularly powerful for our understanding the present and past interactions between life and inanimate matter, and promises to reveal the co-evolution of geosphere and biosphere. Besides, such studies hold enormous practical potential as well.
Students might have some knowledge of ecology (including paleoecology), also a study of organisms in relation to the environment in which they live. However, ecology is in a much narrower sense. Ecologists, those who study ecology, are always aiming to understand how an organism fits into its environment. They may be interested in asking questions like: Why does this organism live or grow here and not there? How does the organism obtain its food? Is a particular nutrient limiting its growth or number? Does it reproduce in this site and if so how? Is it absent from parts of the site due to some factors? How and when do the young disperse? What cause the death of the organisms? It may be effortless for a student to cite numerous possible questions. Obviously, most of these questions are about the study of environments from the point of view of various organisms. Geobiology is in a much broader sense, dealing with interactions of life with the earth’s surface environment, present and past, which works in two directions: life has had an enormous impact on the chemical and physical evolution of this planet, and in turn, evolutionary changes in the Earth’s surface environment have left their imprint on the ecosystem. Theoretically and methodologically, it seems that there is nothing new in Geobiology, an artificial mixture of diverse sub-disciplines selected from the earth and life sciences. There is neither a unified theory nor a specific method for Geobiology. However, it is of great importance that this cross-discipline provides us a holistic view thinking the Earth as a system, in which life and inanimate world are intimately interacted in present and past.
Over the past two decades or more geobiological research has truly exploded. Many research centers have been established and enormous advances have been published in scientific journals of geology and biology, and many special volumes as well. Meanwhile, professional journals have been launched by leading publishers, e.g., Geobiology by the Blackwell Science and Virtual Journal of Geobiology by Elsevier. An Encyclopedia of Geobiology is now under compiling by the Springer. However, this field of research has remained relatively neglected in China, and it would behove students majoring in geology to devote more attention to this discipline. Currently, most geobiological research achievements are published in English, while relevant Chinese literatures are quite rare. Under this circumstance, the Department of Geology, Northwest University launched a bilingual teaching and learning course of Geobiology at the beginning of this century. It is designed as a half-semester introductory course for students requiring knowledge of geobiology as a trigger for further interests in this field.
This research subject, however, is far from maturity. Comprehensive books e.g. Introduction to Geomicrobiology (by K. Konhauser, 2007), are rare and a formal textbook is presently not available worldwide.Lecture Notes of Geobiology has been writtenas a text for senior students of geology major in the Department of Geology, Northwest University. Research topics of geobiology are all-inclusive. Studies of astrobiology (investigating exterrestrial life), environmental microbiology, biogeomorphology, global changes, etc., are all considered by some authors as sub-branches of geobiology. Lecture Notes of Geobiology regards geobiology as a subdiscipline of geology, covering the following topics.

  1. Current classification of organisms, geological importance of metabolic diversity, biologically induced isotopic fractionation and extremophiles (life in extreme environments).
  2. Fossil and recent biofilms and biomats—development, characteristics, distribution, geological record, and taphonomic roles.
  3. Environment (geosphere and biosphere) as a system, energy flow and biogeochemical cycles of elements that are of geobiological importance.
  4. Biogenic minerals and, processes, principles and evolution of biomineralization, and concept of organomineralization.
  5. Biogenic sedimentation—major types of biogenic sediments, biological diagenesis, and microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS).
  6. Biological deconstruction of rocks and minerals—bioerosion, microbial weathering, and soil formation.
  7. Co-evolution between life and Earth’s surface environment—geological record of early Earth, formation of oxygenic atmosphere, evolution of ocean chemistry, and how the biosphere evolved during the Precambrian.

Lecture Notes of Geobiology is a contribution to the bilingual teaching and learning course at the Department of Geology, Northwest University. Its sources are mostly from English publications. Audiences are seniors who have good knowledge of geology, and their English are good as well. The majority of them passed CET-6 (College English Test, Band 6). Therefore, Lecture Notes of Geobiology was prepared in English, well suitable for a bilingual teaching and learning course. Frankly speaking, this contribution is far from a complete introduction to Geobiology, nothing but a patchwork of lecture notes. The major feature of the lecture notes focuses on the geological consequences of biological activity. The aim of this course is to stir up students’ attention to many growing fields of Geobiology, to foster students a holistic view on the evolution of Earth, as well as to train their capabilities of learning and communicating professional knowledge through English.