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Tullis Onstott - About Me

Geosciences and Environmental Engineering

Tullis Onstott
Professor of Geosciences

2015 pdf of publications

Tullis Onstott has been focusing his research for the last 23 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 deepest mine in North America 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

Recently Published Books

Deep Life Book Cover

Deep Life takes readers to uncharted regions deep beneath Earth's crust in search of life in extreme environments and reveals how astonishing new discoveries by geomicrobiologists are helping the quest to find life in the solar system.

Tullis Onstott, named one of the 100 most influential people in America by Time magazine, provides an insider's look at the pioneering fieldwork that is shining vital new light on Earth's hidden biology--a thriving subterranean biosphere that scientists once thought to be impossible. Come along on epic descents two miles underground into South African gold mines to experience the challenges that Onstott and his team had to overcome. Join them in their search for microbes in the ancient seabed below the desert floor in the American Southwest, and travel deep beneath the frozen wastelands of the Arctic tundra to discover life as it could exist on Mars.

Blending cutting-edge science with thrilling scientific adventure, Deep Life features rare and unusual encounters with exotic life forms, including a bacterium living off radiation and a hermaphroditic troglodytic worm that has changed our understanding of how complex subsurface life can really be. This unforgettable book takes you to the absolute limits of life--the biotic fringe--where today's scientists hope to discover the very origins of life itself.

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)