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Tullis Onstott - About Me

Geosciences and Environmental Engineering

Tullis Onstott
Professor of Geosciences

Tullis Onstott has been focusing his research for the last 15 years on subsurface microbial life. This research involves exploration of subsurface microbial ecosystems via mines, drilling, and new underground laboratories, and by quantifying their community structure, function, and activity. His group does this by analyzing metagenomes, metatranscriptomes and metaproteomes, performing stable isotope measurements, and combining geochemical measurements with thermodynamic models.

The principal focuses of his research projects are the activity and survival of bacteria and other microorganisms in the deep subsurface (> 0.5 km) of continents, in the shallow permafrost deposits in the polar region and in shallow aquifer sediments.   Among the questions his research group address are: 1) How do subsurface microorganisms evolve and what role do subsurface viromes play in evolution? 2) What constrains the diversity and abundance of microorganisms? 3) What role does radiation play as an energy source for life? 4) What types of organic compounds are utilized by subsurface microorganisms and by what processes? 5) How does the methane and nitrogen cycles interact in the subsurface? 6) How will global climate warming impact the methane cycle in the Arctic and in Antarctica. 7) What controls the upper temperature limit of life? 8) How do microbial redox processes control the migration of arsenic in groundwater?

Currently, his group is involved in four field projects, the first situated in the Canadian Arctic and the second sited in the world’s deepest mines in South Africa, the third in the Siberian permafrost deposits and the fourth in shallow groundwater sites in the state of New Jersey. These projects seek to address fundamental scientific questions regarding bacteria/rock/environment interactions while at the same time developing applications of this information that will benefit mankind.


Contact Information
Phone: 609-258-7678

PhD opportunities are available for multidisciplinary, international research into the microbial cycling of carbon in permafrost deposits in Greenland and on Axel Heiberg Island and the deep crustal biosphere of South Africa and Canada.

A Postdoctoral Associate  position is available for multidisciplinary, international research into the microbial cycling of carbon in the deep crustal biosphere of South Africa.  Please go to  to apply.  Requisition number 0110390.

Conference in South Africa, January 17-24 2011

New Horizons for International Investigations into Carbon Cycling in the Deep Biosphere conference was held at the University of Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa sponsored by Deep Carbon Observatory.

Recently Given Talks:

Recently Published Papers:

Commercial DNA extraction kits impact observed microbial community composition in permafrost samples, 2014 (pdf)

Does Aspartic Acid Racemization Constrain the Depth Limit of the Subsurface Biosphere? 2013 (pdf)

Hydrocarbon Microspheres from >2 Billion Year Old Carbon-bearing Seams in the South African Deep Subsurface, 2012 (pdf)

The origin of NO3- and N2 in deep subsurface fracture water of South Africa, 2012. (pdf)

2 Ga old crustal neon component implies long water-rock reaction times of deep fracture water, 2011.  (pdf)

Microbes in Thawing Permafrost: The Unknown Variable in the Climate Change Equation, 2012.  (pdf)

Nematoda from the terrestrial deep subsurface of South Africa, 2011.  (pdf)

Extended Survival of Several Organisms and Amino Acids under Simulated Martian Surface Conditions, 2011. (pdf)

Research Projects:

PhD opportunities are available for multidisciplinary, international research into the microbial cycling of carbon in the deep crustal biosphere of South Africa (sponsored by NSF and the Sloan Foundation).

Witwatersrand Basin showing location of mines sample during LExEn deep microbiology project.

Global Warming Impact on Carbon Cycle of Permafrost from the Canadian High Arctic (sponsored by U.S. Dept. of Energy).

A Cavity Ringdown Spectrometer for Isotopic Measurement of Martian CH4 (sponsored by NASA-ASTID Program)

A Shallow-Borehole Array for Measuring Greenland Emission of Trace Gases as an Analogue for Methane on Mars (Project GETGAMM) (sponsored by NASA ASTEP Program)

Education and Outreach:

MRO aerobraking into Martian orbit.