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Evolution expert earns prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowship

Media release

World-leading organic geochemist and mass extinction and evolution expert, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Kliti Grice, founding Director of the Curtin University-based Western Australian Organic and Isotope Geochemistry Centre has been awarded a prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Federal Government.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Kliti Grice

Professor Grice will receive almost $3million in funding over five years for her international research project which aims to unlock a hidden record of our planet’s past and the life it supported, by examining microscopic soft tissue samples left in fossils.

The Minister for Education and Youth, the Hon. Alan Tudge awarded 17 Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships across a range of disciplines with Curtin the only Western Australian university on the list.

Curtin Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Chris Moran congratulated Professor Grice on her outstanding achievement and said she was a shining example of the high quality and high impact research being performed at Curtin.

“Professor Grice’s achievements are a testament to her dedication and excellence in pushing the frontiers of evolutionary research in order to answer fundamentally important Earth science questions and we are extremely proud to see her recognised with this sought-after fellowship,” Professor Moran said.

“Only those proposals with the greatest potential to have significant, real-world impact are successful and I know Professor Grice and her international collaborators will translate their research into outcomes that benefit our understanding of our planet’s environment and ecosystems.”

A world-leading authority on molecular fossil and stable isotope geochemistry, Professor Grice from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences said the Fellowship project, ‘Interpreting the molecular record in extraordinarily preserved fossils’, will explore a new way of interpreting Earth’s past.

“This project will not only explore some of the most fundamental questions about our planet’s past, but has real-world relevance in helping us better understand environmental change, ecosystem management and even inform resource exploration,” Professor Grice said.

“Our novel approach will see us analyse soft tissues preserved in fossils to extend our knowledge of the functional traits of microbes, and how they may have been impacted by the evolutionary events that shaped the planet, such as asteroid impacts and climate changes.

“Expected outcomes from this new way of interpreting our planet’s past, include improved understanding of extinction events, environmental change and adaptation, with potential benefits in ecosystem management and biofilm uses.”

Professor Grice is a world-renowned organic geochemist who is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and was awarded the 2018 Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) Medal for her extraordinary contribution to science.

Her previous work includes finding a geological and environmental basis for the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, which occurred about 252 million years ago; identifying sulfide toxicity as an underlying cause of rapid biological turnover from the frequent presence of green sulfur bacteria in this event and other mass extinction events; finding robust microbial communities associated with the asteroid impact more than 66 million years ago played an important role in the ‘impact winter’ when the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out; and demonstrating the role of microbial activity in the exceptional preservation of fossils.

Professor Grice’s Laureate Fellowship project will involve international collaboration with researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan, Austria, India, Sweden and Germany.