Researcher Strikes Connection Between Lightning, Origin of Life

TAMPA, Fla. (July 14, 2009) It is thought that Tampa means "sticks of fire" in the Calusa tribe's language, and the area's electric reputation lives on in Tampa’s modern-day, unofficial title as the lightning capital of the United States.


A researcher at the University of South Florida has tapped into the bay area's fiery tendencies to study how lightning could be connected to the origins and evolution of life. Matthew Pasek, visiting assistant professor of geology at USF, along with Kristin Block, a master’s student at the University of Arizona, have published their findings in the latest edition of a leading geological science journal, Nature Geoscience, attracting attention from Discovery News, New Scientist and Scientific American. 


When lightning strikes the earth's surface, it leaves behind glassy veins of melted sand and soil called fulgurites. Pasek and Block have found rare forms of phosphorous in these fulgurite deposits, which could have been fuel for microbes billions of years ago.  Even today, several microorganisms use these rare forms of phosphorus as nutrients, and prior to the present research, scientists were puzzled as to their source.


“Phosphorus was described by Isaac Asimov as ‘Nature’s Bottleneck,’ by which he meant that in most ecosystems, there is only as much life as there is available phosphorus,” said Pasek. “This research shows that organisms will use any phosphorus that is available in the environment, even phosphorus that has been fried by lightning. It is likely that this has been going on since the beginning of life.”


Pasek's gaze reaches from across the solar system to the surface of the earth when conducting his research on the role of meteorites, metabolism, and phosphorus in his quest to better understand the origin of life. His research has been funded by NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology.  Pasek earned a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona and joined USF in 2008 as a visiting assistant professor and researcher in the Department of Geology.


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $360 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2007/2008. The university offers 224 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 46,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.


Story written by Jacqui Cash, Academic Affairs