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Remote Sonoma County landscape offers microscopic peek at life's beginnings

  • Roger Raiche, right, and David McCrory stand at the Grotto Pool Spring where several unique microbes have been discovered at The Cedars north of Cazadero. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Scientists looking for clues to the origins of life on Earth have discovered new life forms right here in Sonoma County that may shed light on how life evolved — and how it might be detected elsewhere in the universe.

A three-year study of alkaline ponds at The Cedars, a vast but remote serpentine area north of Cazadero, has uncovered microorganisms never before detected, existing in the kinds of harsh conditions believed to reflect those that first gave rise to life, scientists say.

Researchers hope studying these unique microbes and how they function may impart information about the biochemical reactions that imbued inorganic substances on early Earth with the spark of life.

Studying Microbes At The Cedars

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“In the next few years, we're going to know a lot about these organisms, and that, I think, will stimulate a lot of thinking in these kinds of areas — both in the origins of life and in the limits of life,” said Kenneth Nealson, a professor with the University of Southern California's Wrigley Institute who participated in the research published last month.

Its very appearance hints at the insights that might be yielded by The Cedars into how primitive or even extra-terrestrial life began and functioned in a hostile, anaerobic environment.

Terms like “unearthly,” “other-worldly” and “moonscape-like” have been used to describe the dramatic, rugged terrain located off a winding, private dirt road that crosses Austin Creek a half-dozen times and passes through a series of locked gates.

Squint, and it's easy to imagine the raw, barren scarp that rises a thousand feet above the headwaters to Austin Creek existing somewhere on another planet. A Mars rover would look at home against its reddish hues and crumbling scree.

Below the sheer ridgeline, white crusted ponds lined with cream-colored silt, and “mineral falls” coated with thick, glistening yellow evoke the kind of primordial soup from which the first creatures on Earth might have emerged.

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