Evolution of Earth’s Biosphere

  • Professor Sue Kidwell teaches students how to evaluate fossil reefs in light of living examples on a field course in the Bahamas.

  • PhD student Madeline Marshall measures a section of Permian-age black shales and phosphorites in southeastern Idaho.

  • The strange beauty and complexity of life can be found and studied in unexpected locations and forms.

  • Graduate students Peter Tierney and Stewart Edie examine Miocene-age marine sediments and fossils on a field trip to the Calvert Cliffs in Maryland.

Major research areas
Biogeochemistry and microbial systems
Paleontology and Earth history


Our questions concern life from the Archean to the Anthropocene, from single lineages to the entire tree of life. What are the biotic and environmental drivers of major evolutionary transitions? How were these innovations deployed within clades, and how did they in turn affect Earth’s environment? What is the relationship between evolution within a single gene or species and global macroevolutionary patterns? Research bearing on these overarching themes is approached from the perspectives of biogeochemistry and microbial systems (Coleman and Waldbauer), and paleontology and Earth history (Foote, Jablonski, Kidwell, Slater, Waldbauer, and Webster). Methods include field work on land and at sea, physiology and genetics, genomics and proteomics, phylogenetics, morphometrics, numerical simulation, and statistical analysis of the fossil record and modern biotas. Our connections to inter-departmental programs such as evolutionary biology, biophysics, and microbiology, and with other institutions including the Marine Biological Laboratory, Field Museum and Argonne National Laboratory, create exceptional opportunities for interdisciplinary research. We welcome applications from students with a wide range of backgrounds, including biology, chemistry, and Earth sciences.

The University of Chicago hosted the ground-breaking research of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey on the abiotic production of organic compounds on the early Earth. The University of Chicago has also been a dominant force in paleontology for decades, marked especially by the synthesis of modern biology with paleontology, as in the pioneering work of David Raup and Jack Sepkoski. Though our specific research areas have evolved, we have maintained the emphasis on fundamental questions of broad scope and impact.