Microbial biologist David Ward, a member of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, will appear Wednesday, April 4, on "Hunting the Elements," a two-hour program produced for NOVA. Check local listings for the time.
Ward's segment will focus on oxygen, one of the basic elements of and for life. To explain how life worked before oxygen was part of the atmosphere, Ward will take host David Pogue into Yellowstone National Park and show him microbial mats that live in the effluent channels of silica-rich hot springs that are similar to those found at Old Faithful. Ward will use an ordinary drinking straw to take samples from the mats. He will then take the samples back to MSU and explain how the microbes produce oxygen.
Ward has spent 35 field seasons conducting research on these mats in Yellowstone National Park and sees Yellowstone's hot, poisonous pools as windows into a world that existed three or four billion years ago. In "Hunting the Elements," he will describe how scientists think some of the earliest forms of life required extremely hot water, mixed with chemicals like hydrogen, sulfur or iron, to acquire the energy they needed to live. But as the planet cooled, another kind of ancient microorganism evolved and changed everything.
Those microorganisms -- called cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae -- found a way to get their energy from light and water, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Ward said the evolution of cyanobacteria set the stage for all the plant and animal life that followed. Cyanobacteria now make half the oxygen for all things requiring oxygen to breathe. Algae and modern plants, whose ability to perform the same kind of photosynthesis was obtained from cyanobacteria, produce the other half.
"They changed the planet forever," Ward said of cyanobacteria.
A crew from Powderhouse Productions of Boston filmed Ward in Yellowstone and on the MSU campus last July. Powderhouse Productions produces NOVA programs for PBS.
In addition to his research in Yellowstone, Ward has been involved extensively in interpretative projects related to the park. He has provided information for numerous televised programs, boardwalk signs and manuals. He has taught classes for seasonal rangers who give interpretive talks, the Yellowstone Association, Yellowstone's ParKids and Camp Wildness Programs, and he has reached out to audiences of all ages through the development of electronic field trips. He recently developed an exhibit called "Earth's Earliest Life: A Microbial World" that is currently on display at MSU's Museum of the Rockies and which explores the evidence that plants and animals descended from microbes.
Pogue, the host of "Hunting the Elements," also hosts Nova's popular "Making Stuff" show. He is technology correspondent for The New York Times.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org