Earth as analogue for Mars
For many centuries, people have speculated the existence of life on Mars. Today, the planet is a cold, dry and strongly oxidizing environment unlikely to support life, but past environmental conditions have been much more habitable. However, finding evidence for life on Mars is difficult without knowledge of possible microbial communties that could have survived on the early planet, or without understanding of the preservation of biological signatures in the rock record (also see 'Stable isotope biomarkers for early life').
In our research, we use the anoxic early Earth and extreme environments on the modern earth (evaporitic and hypersaline pools, acidic rivers, acidic crater lakes) as analogues for the earliest potential habitats on Mars, to provide a better background for comparison and extrapolation of microbiological and chemical data on Earth to those obtained in future Mars missions.
Magmas and the Earth's interior
Understanding the deep sources of magmas and their chemical evolution in both active and ancient geological settings remains one of the key issues in classical igneous petrology, and is strongly linked to research on the geodynamics and large-scale tectonic processes in volcanically active terrains.
We use a variety of petrological, mineralogical, geochemical and isotopic techniques to explore the origin and compositional variation of magmas, concentrating at (formerly active) convergent plate margins in Italy and Turkey. We are interested in the role and transfer of subducted materials in relation to the chemical characteristics of erupted lavas, and study various chemical fingerprints to establish the setting and relative timing of magmatic events in the past. We are also actively involved in development and improvement of new analytical techniques for in situ analyses of rock materials (also see 'Laser ablation ICP-MS')
Another important source of information is the study of melt and fluid inclusions, captured by minerals crystallizing from cooling magmas. We carry out inclusion studies to obtain detailed pictures of magma sources in the upper mantle, and to establish conditions of melting and crystallization.
Worldwide increasing demands for traditional and novel high-tech mineral commodities call for new efforts in the search for geological resources. Our group develops new research lines contributing to our understanding how and where mineral deposits form. We aim at the fundamentals of natural element distribution processes from mineralogical, petrological and geochemical perspectives, usually within the geological context of a given field setting. Our research facilitates assessments of undiscovered resources and addresses environmental issues related to their extraction and use.
Stable isotope biomarkers for early life
The origin and evolution of early life is a focal point of research in the Earth sciences and astrobiology worldwide, and is generally seen as one of the major academic challenges today. In our group, we work on the development of isotopic tracers for early life, with a strong focus on sulfur-based metabolisms. We perform fundamental research on biological fractionation of sulfur and selenium isotopes under a wide range of environmental conditions, and we study the robustness of stable isotope signatures to alteration by diagenetic and metamorphic processes.
Our research is aimed at tracing the development of life on early Earth (concentrated on the Barberton greenstone belt), as well as the exploration of life on Mars (also see 'Earth as analogue for Mars').
The Archean environment
The Archean (3.8 - 2.5 billion years ago) environment was considerably different from our modern world. Oxygen was virtually absent from the atmosphere, continents were still small and only microbial life was present in the earliest oceans. We investigate the conditions of these early environments using stable isotopes of silicon, and we use advanced analytical techniques to determine for example the temperature, composition and hydrothermal fluxes into the Archean oceans.
In this work, we focus on cherts from the Pilbara (Kitty's Gap chert, Marble Bar chert, North Pole chert-barite unit) in Western Australia, as well as the Buck Reef chert from the Barberton Greenstone Belt in South-Africa.
We also work on fundamental experiments to determine isotope fractionation factors relevant for chert formation processes.