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Astrobiology. 2011 Jul-Aug;11(6):509-18. doi: 10.1089/ast.2010.0560. Epub 2011 Jul 8.

Understanding microbialite morphology using a comprehensive suite of three-dimensional analysis tools.

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Department of Geology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Microbialites can have complex morphologies that preserve clues to ancient microbial ecology. However, extracting and interpreting these clues is challenging due to both the complexity of microbial structures and the difficulties of connecting morphology to microbial processes. Fenestrate microbialites from the 2521±3 Ma Gamohaan Formation, South Africa, have intricate structures composed of three distinct microbial structures: steeply dipping supports (surfaces defined by organic inclusions), more shallowly dipping supports with diffuse organic inclusions below them, and draping laminae. In polished slabs, shallowly dipping supports with diffuse organic inclusions show apparent dips from 27° to 60°, and supports without associated zones of diffuse inclusions dip 75° to 88°, which suggests a distinction between support types based on orientation. However, dips exposed in polished slabs are apparent dips, and three-dimensional analysis is required for analysis of true dips. Through the Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES), we used locally developed software that controls a three-dimensional environment with head and hand tracking (an "immersive environment") to visualize and interpret virtual microbialite data sets. Immersive environments have not penetrated into standard scientific work processes ("workflows") due to their high costs, steep learning curves, and low productivity for users. By contrast, our suite of software tools allowed us to develop a personalized scientific workflow that provides a complete path from initial ideas to characterization of fenestrate microbialites' features. Results of three-dimensional analysis of fenestrate microbialites show that supports with inclusions dip 65° to 75°, whereas supports without inclusions dip 85° to 90°. These results demonstrate that all supports have very steep dips, and a 10° dip gap exists between supports with and without inclusions, which suggests they grew in fundamentally different ways. Results also emphasize how valuable three-dimensional analysis is when combined with a comprehensive workflow for understanding intricate structures such as fenestrate microbialites.

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