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Searching for life on Mars on Earth

Study level


Faculty/Lead unit

Topic status

We're looking for students to study this topic.


Dr David Flannery
Research Fellow
Division / Faculty
Science and Engineering Faculty
Professor Balz Kamber
Professor in Petrology
Division / Faculty
Science and Engineering Faculty

External supervisors

  • Dr Ken Williford, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Beginning with the Mariner 4 probe which flew by Mars in 1965 and sent back the first detailed images of the surface, a series of orbital, lander and rover missions have revealed abundant evidence for aqueous environments in Mars’ distant past.

NASA has recently shifted focus from searching for past habitable environments to searching for evidence for past microbial life in these environments.

This project seeks to better understand where to look for and how to interpret such evidence by studying biosignatures preserved in Precambrian rocks on Earth.

Research activities

The project will focus on textural and microscopic microbial biosignatures preserved in Precambrian rocks on Earth.

Nanoscale in situ mapping techniques such as NanoSIMS and XANES, enabled by challenging sample preparation methods including focused ion beam milling (FIB), will be used to investigate the significance of poorly-understood Precambrian biosignatures representing analogues for features that may be encountered on Mars.

The candidate will be expected to travel to the United States to collaborate with NASA scientists.


This project will provide an opportunity to better understand the types of palaeoenvironments that preserve evidence for very early-evolving microbial life on Earth and the timing of the origin of key metabolisms that continue to control biogeochemical cycles today.

Skills and experience

A background in the geological and/or biological sciences is required.

A valid driver's license is required.

The candidate will be expected to use a variety of petrographic and geochemical techniques (e.g. optical microscopy, SEM-EDS, XRD, XRF, Raman) to investigate samples collected from the field.


You may be able to apply for a research scholarship in our annual scholarship round.

Annual scholarship round



Contact the supervisor for more information.