Headlines at Hopkins: news releases from across
university Headlines
News by Topic: news releases organized by subject News by Topic
News by School: news releases organized by the 
university's 9 schools & divisions News by School
Events Open to the Public (campus-wide) Events Open
to the Public
Blue Jay Sports: Hopkins Athletic Center Blue Jay Sports
Search News Site Search the Site

Contacting the News Staff: directory of university 
press officers Contacting
News Staff
Receive News Via Email (listservs) Receive News
Via Email
Resources for Journalists Resources for Journalists

Virtually Live@Hopkins: audio and video news Virtually
Hopkins in the News: news clips about Hopkins Hopkins in
the News

Faculty Experts: searchable resource organized by 
topic Faculty Experts
Faculty and Administrator Photos Faculty and
Faculty with Homepages Faculty with Homepages

JHUNIVERSE Homepage JHUniverse Homepage
Headlines at Hopkins
News Release

Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 | Fax (410) 516-5251

March 6, 2002
CONTACT: Michael Purdy
(410) 516-7906

Undergrad Finds Clues to 400- Million-Year-Old Mystery

Steven Porter, a Johns Hopkins University senior from Cherry Hill, N.J., has conducted original research that adds new and potentially decisive evidence to a debate about the identity of one of the first organisms to make the epochal leap from the sea to dry land approximately 400 million years ago.

As one of 42 Johns Hopkins students who received Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards in the 2001-2002 academic year, Porter will present an overview of his project during an upcoming awards ceremony. It will run from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, in the Glass Pavilion on the Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Although he's a pre-med student majoring in English, Porter sought out an undergraduate experience in laboratory research that would allow him to explore areas beyond his training in molecular biology and cellular biology. Through a Web site devoted to undergraduate research opportunities at Johns Hopkins, he connected with Hope Jahren, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Moss or lichen? Steven Porter (with Hope Jahren) helped identity a 400-million-year-old fossil.

Jahren's lab analyzes isotopes of elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in living and fossilized plants to better understand their relationship to contemporary and prehistoric climates. Isotopes are forms of an element that differ only by the addition of one or more subatomic particles known as neutrons. Different isotopes of the same element have different mass, which affects the way plants use them.

Porter chose to study a unique, high-quality fossil specimen of Spongiophyton minutissimum from Jahren's collection of fossils. Kept in a sealed vial, the specimen is a little bigger than a dime and dates from the Devonian Period, a time about 400 million years ago when the seas of Earth teemed with life but the continents were barren wastelands. "Now, look at that morphology [shape]," Jahren asks when showing the fossil sample to a visitor. "It's very tough to get much insight into what type of organism this was based solely on its shape, but a look at certain aspects of its chemistry that have been preserved in the fossil may help give us more clues."

Whatever it is, Jahren notes, the sample probably represents a crucial step from life at home only in the sea to the types of life that could spread over land over the course of millions of years.

To learn more about the fossil, Porter resolved to compare it to its nearest modern relatives. But based on studies of the shapes of various fossil samples of Spongiophyton minutissimum, paleontologists were divided into two schools of thought on what those nearest relatives were. Some thought the fossil was an example of a bryophyte, a class of plants comprised mostly of mosses; and some favored the idea that the fossil was a lichen, which is a close association between a fungus and an alga.

Porter conducted an extensive literature search to familiarize himself with the debate, and then sought the advice of experts in the field to further firm up his understanding. He relishes the fact that he was able to use his inexperience in the field to get a chance to speak with prominent people in it.

"My naivete paid off," Porter says. "I probably would have been much more intimidated talking to these people, since they are very much the leaders of their fields."

Thanks in part to the advice and assistance of people like Paula DePriest, an associate curator in the department of botany at the Smithsonian Institution, Porter was able to select a range of contemporary species of mosses and lichens to test with the fossil. Using training and equipment from Jahren's lab, he looked at the isotopes of carbon found in each group and in the fossil, and found that the types of carbon in the fossil more closely resembled those found in modern lichens.

"It's very clear from these results that the fossil cycled carbon in a manner that much more closely resembles that of the lichens than it does the bryophytes," Jahren comments. "Why does that matter? This is one important piece of how we go from sterile land to what we have today. This tells us the type of biology that was most effective, at the very beginning, was the strategy of the lichen, not the moss."

Porter and Jahren hope to present the results at an upcoming meeting of the Geophysical Society of America. Both agreed that Porter has come away with valuable insight into what the process of scientific research is like.

"He's learned that it's labor-intensive work, but that there's a lasting effect to birthing a new piece of knowledge," Jahren says. "I think he also recognizes as a result of his provost project the amount of luck, in addition to good planning, that goes into research."

The Johns Hopkins University is recognized as the country's first graduate research university, and has been in recent years the leader among the nation's research universities in winning federal research and development grants. The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.

The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program provides one of these research opportunities, open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have been awarded up to $2,500 to propose and conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, begun by then provost Joseph Cooper and funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research.

Return to Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards news release.

Johns Hopkins University news releases can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/
   Information on automatic e-mail delivery of science and medical news releases is available at the same address.

Go to Headlines@HopkinsHome Page