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Timothy Lyons

Distinguished Professor of Biogeochemistry
Timothy Lyons
The History and Future of Earth
Following NASA’s confirmation of evidence that liquid water flows on Mars, the world is pondering the possibility of life existing on other planets. According to the Exoplanet Orbit Database, 1,540 exoplanets—planets from outside our solar systems—have been discovered orbiting other stars in our galaxy. We are a long way from the technology required to visit those planets. What, then, can we learn from our planet that will inform exploration of life in the universe?

To answer that question, an “Alternative Earths” team led by UCR biogeochemist Timothy Lyons is looking for evidence on Earth to determine how our planet became habitable. Sharing a $50 million grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the team is mapping the different states of life on Earth from 3.2 billion years ago—when bacteria may have first begun oxygen-producing photosynthesis—to about 700 million years ago, about the time animals came on the scene. As the only planet known to sustain life, Earth holds the key in determining what might be on Mars or an exoplanet far, far away.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Alternative Earths
  • Geochemistry
  • Sedimentary Geochemistry
  • Biogeochemical Cycles
  • Astrobiology
College: Department: Affiliations:
  • NASA Astrobiology
  • Funding panels within the National Science Foundation (NSF) and four within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Chair, Geochemistry Committee of the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society
  • Member, College of Reviewers of the Canada Research Chairs Program
  • Leader, 'Alternative Earths’ NAI team at UC Riverside
  • Member, NAI Executive Council
  • Member, U.S. National Research Council Committee on New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation
  • Editorial positions, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Global Biogeochemical Cycles and Earth and Planetary Science Letters
  • Advisory board member, American Geological Union and Cambridge University Press
  • Agouron Institute and the Southern California Geobiology Community
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Select Honors and Distinctions

  • 2015 Geochemical Fellow by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry

Latest Research

Q&A

Q: What is astrobiology?
Astrobiology is the study of life, it’s history and future. This was a program originated by NASA in the 1990’s. It spurred from a mistake NASA made by misidentifying signs of life on a meteorite from Mars found in the Antarctic. There thought to be fossils and signatures of life on the rock, but in fact there were not. NASA realized that it was not good at recognizing biosignatures when they are elusive. But because they continued to be very interested in finding evidence for life elsewhere, they thought it would be good to develop a program that would specialize in that called astrobiology.

Q: How does UCR help benefit/inform NASA?
NASA is very excited about the work of astrobiology and recently made an investment of $50 million to bring new teams on board. UCR’s share of that investment is $7.3 million. What UCR brings to the table is this expertise of earth studies. We are one of the better groups in the world right now at bringing together a wide range of techniques - chemical, biological, paleontological – to unravel earth’s history in a way that is has never been done before.

Q: Why is this interaction important for both NASA and UCR?
The interaction for NASA is Important because of the team we have assembled. We have atmospheric modelers, modern biologists, people that work in the modern ocean, geologists, paleontologists and others. This level of funding affords us the opportunity to bring together groups of people very synergistically to go after single questions. We benefit because it is a large grant that enables us to work in a very integrative way and NASA benefits because we bring all that expertise to bear on the things that they care about: exploration for life on other planets.

Q: How does your research help us better understand our future?
This question is at the center of what we are doing to understand the history of habitability on earth. We think that there have been oceans on earth for over 4 billion years. And we think that there has been life on earth almost that long. We have evidence going back as far as 3.7-3.8 billion years ago. What the earth does is it gives us this dynamic history of lots of change including the evolution of life. Through this history we extrapolate templates for understanding where the earth may be going.

Q:Will you see results of your research in your lifetime? What does that mean for you and future generations?
One of the things we are doing is refining our understanding of the atmospheric composition, in particular oxygen in the atmosphere. The first half of earth’s history didn’t have oxygen in it. We understand now that it was not a simple linear ride, we realize that actually oxygen went up and down and other gases changed. Life responded but drove many of those changes. The ultimate result that I hope to live long enough to see is the discovery of life somewhere else.

Timothy Lyons "I am optimistic with exo-planet research and plans for new missions that within my lifetime we will see evidence for life elsewhere."

—Timothy Lyons
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