From The Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences In The College of Arts & Sciences & Engineering At The University of Rochester: “Was plate tectonics occurring when life first formed on Earth?” 

From The Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences


The College of Arts & Sciences & Engineering


The University of Rochester

Lindsey Valich

Plate tectonics melts and mixes rocks to create magmas with specific chemical makeups. Rochester geologists are using that chemical evidence to unlock information about plate tectonic activity on Earth more than 4 billion years ago. (Getty Images photo)

Zircon crystals and magmas reveal new information about plate tectonic activity on Earth billions of years ago.

Earth is a dynamic and constantly changing planet. From the formation of mountains and oceans to the eruption of volcanoes, the surface of our planet is in a constant state of flux. At the heart of these changes lies the powerful force of plate tectonics—the movements of Earth’s crustal plates. This fundamental process has shaped the current topography of our planet and continues to play a role in its future.

But what was plate tectonic activity like during early Earth? And was the process even occurring during the time when life is thought to have formed?

“The dynamic tectonic nature of the modern Earth is one of the reasons why life exists today,” says Wriju Chowdhury, a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of Dustin Trail, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester. “Exploring the geodynamics and the lithological diversity of the early Earth could lead to revelations of how life first began on our planet.”

Chowdhury is the first author of a paper published in Nature Communications [below] that outlines how Rochester researchers used small zircon crystals to unlock information about magmas and plate tectonic activity in early Earth. The research provides chemical evidence that plate tectonics was most likely occurring more than 4.2 billion years ago when life is thought to have first formed on our planet. This finding could prove beneficial in the search for life on other planets.

Plate tectonics power the creation and destruction of Earth’s crust

Plate tectonics on modern Earth is “extremely important,” Trail says, because it is “the dominant mechanism for the creation and destruction of Earth’s crust.”

Earth is the only known planet that has a mobile upper crust that is cyclically destroyed and created. The process delivers critical elements, such as iron and magnesium, from the interior of the earth to its surface and controls Earth’s water and carbon cycles. But, more importantly to geologists, plate tectonics melts and mixes rocks to create magmas with specific chemical makeups, depending on the rocks involved and the location where the “destruction” occurred. The chemical makeup of magma can therefore indicate the style of tectonics that created it.

Ancient crystals as tiny time capsules

Chowdhury and his colleagues conducted their research using zircons—tiny crystals in rocks that are like small time capsules. The zircons contain trace amounts of chemical elements locked into the crystals at the time when the crystals were formed. The researchers date the zircons and then work backward, with zircons revealing information about the chemical makeup of the parent magmas from which the zircons crystallized. Researchers then use information about the magmas to reconstruct the physical and chemical environment—and to infer plate tectonic styles—of the early Earth, during the time when the zircons formed. In this case, the zircons were around 3.8 to 4.2 billion years old.

According to Chowdhury, most researchers infer information about early Earth using zircons to create probabilistic models to present different tectonic scenarios. Chowdhury and his colleagues went a step further to describe not only the zircons but also the parent magmas.

Rochester researchers Wriju Chowdhury and Dustin Trail reveal information about early Earth using tiny zircon crystals, which are billions of years old and a fraction of a millimeter in size (scale bars are in micrometers, where 1 micrometer = 0.000001 meter). The researchers use an imaging technique called cathodoluminescence that fires electrons from a cathode at a sample. The holes in the crystals are from a laser that removed part of the grain to allow the researchers to acquire chemical information. (Smithsonian Institution photo)

“Parent magmas are much more direct and reliable because they are closer to the source—the actual tectonic style,” Chowdhury says. “Our study describes the silicon and oxygen isotopic content of the zircons and the trace element content of the parental magmas, which has not been combined and presented before.”

Chowdhury, Trail, and their colleagues found chemical similarities between early Earth magmas and modern magmas created at tectonically active plate boundaries such as the Cascade and Aleutian Island chains or areas in Japan and the Andes Mountains.

“This suggests tectonic continuity from the ancient to modern times,” Trail says. “That is, our study shows the earth, billions of years ago, might have operated similarly as it does today.”

A key characteristic of a habitable planet

The researchers did not determine whether life existed when plate tectonics began—“neither life nor tectonics have an accurate start date yet,” Chowdhury says, noting that the geology community is divided on these points. But the new data provides chemical evidence suggesting that plate tectonics could have been occurring more than 4.2 billion years ago.

Whatever the case, he continues, plate tectonics is a key reason why Earth currently has a temperate living environment—and could be an important factor in the search for habitable living environments on other planets.

“The chances for life to originate increase manifold if there is some planetary dynamism,” he says.

Nature Communications
See the science paper for instructive material with images.

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition

Earth and Environmental Sciences is the integration of chemistry, biology, and physics applied to Earth and planetary systems.

Wind, water, earthquakes, volcanoes, and human activities constantly modify Earth. Global systems studies probe the processes that form and modify the planet, from cycling of water and human interactions, to magmatism and faulting at plate boundaries, as well as recycling of plates within the convecting mantle.

Understanding these systems requires measurements of our planet’s present-day structure, as well as records since its formation 4.5 billion years ago. This multi-disciplinary, systems-based approach forms the basis for our undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
Department Goals

As a department, we strive to:

Advance fundamental scientific understanding of the Earth system in the past, present, and future
Communicate this understanding to our students and the general public
Train the next generation of earth and environmental scientists
Maintain a high level of excellence in research and teaching
Act with integrity in all our of scholarly endeavors
Create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive environment in the classroom, laboratory, and field

The College of Arts & Sciences & Engineering is one of the primary units of the University of Rochester, encompassing the majority of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment. The College is divided in the units of Arts and Sciences and the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The College is located on the River Campus of the University of Rochester, though some departments maintain facilities on other campuses. The College was established in 1955 upon the merger of the separate colleges for men and women at the university.

University of Rochester campus

The University of Rochester is a private research university in Rochester, New York. The university grants undergraduate and graduate degrees, including doctoral and professional degrees.

The University of Rochester enrolls approximately 6,800 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students. Its 158 buildings house over 200 academic majors. According to the National Science Foundation , Rochester spent $370 million on research and development in 2018, ranking it 68th in the nation. The university is the 7th largest employer in the Finger lakes region of New York.

The College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering is home to departments and divisions of note. The Institute of Optics was founded in 1929 through a grant from Eastman Kodak and Bausch and Lomb as the first educational program in the US devoted exclusively to optics and awards approximately half of all optics degrees nationwide and is widely regarded as the premier optics program in the nation and among the best in the world.

The Departments of Political Science and Economics have made a significant and consistent impact on positivist social science since the 1960s and historically rank in the top 5 in their fields. The Department of Chemistry is noted for its contributions to synthetic organic chemistry, including the first lab-based synthesis of morphine. The Rossell Hope Robbins Library serves as the university’s resource for Old and Middle English texts and expertise. The university is also home to Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy supported national laboratory.

University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics.

The University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music ranks first among undergraduate music schools in the U.S. The Sibley Music Library at Eastman is the largest academic music library in North America and holds the third largest collection in the United States.

In its history university alumni and faculty have earned 13 Nobel Prizes; 13 Pulitzer Prizes; 45 Grammy Awards; 20 Guggenheim Awards; 5 National Academy of Sciences; 4 National Academy of Engineering; 3 Rhodes Scholarships; 3 National Academy of Inventors; and 1 National Academy of Inventors Hall of Fame.


Early history

The University of Rochester traces its origins to The First Baptist Church of Hamilton (New York) which was founded in 1796. The church established the Baptist Education Society of the State of New York later renamed the Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution in 1817. This institution gave birth to both Colgate University and the University of Rochester. Its function was to train clergy in the Baptist tradition. When it aspired to grant higher degrees it created a collegiate division separate from the theological division.

The collegiate division was granted a charter by the State of New York in 1846 after which its name was changed to Madison University. John Wilder and the Baptist Education Society urged that the new university be moved to Rochester, New York. However, legal action prevented the move. In response, dissenting faculty, students, and trustees defected and departed for Rochester, where they sought a new charter for a new university.

Madison University was eventually renamed as Colgate University.


Asahel C. Kendrick- professor of Greek- was among the faculty that departed Madison University for Rochester. Kendrick served as acting president while a national search was conducted. He reprised this role until 1853 when Martin Brewer Anderson of the Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts was selected to fill the inaugural posting.

The University of Rochester’s new charter was awarded by the Regents of the State of New York on January 31, 1850. The charter stipulated that the university have $100,000 in endowment within five years upon which the charter would be reaffirmed. An initial gift of $10,000 was pledged by John Wilder which helped catalyze significant gifts from individuals and institutions.

Classes began that November with approximately 60 students enrolled including 28 transfers from Madison. From 1850 to 1862 the university was housed in the old United States Hotel in downtown Rochester on Buffalo Street near Elizabeth Street- today West Main Street near the I-490 overpass. On a February 1851 visit Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the university:

“They had bought a hotel, once a railroad terminus depot, for $8,500, turned the dining room into a chapel by putting up a pulpit on one side, made the barroom into a Pythologian Society’s Hall, & the chambers into Recitation rooms, Libraries, & professors’ apartments, all for $700 a year. They had brought an omnibus load of professors down from Madison bag and baggage… called in a painter and sent him up the ladder to paint the title “University of Rochester” on the wall, and they had runners on the road to catch students. And they are confident of graduating a class of ten by the time green peas are ripe.”

For the next 10 years the college expanded its scope and secured its future through an expanding endowment; student body; and faculty. In parallel a gift of 8 acres of farmland from local businessman and Congressman Azariah Boody secured the first campus of the university upon which Anderson Hall was constructed and dedicated in 1862. Over the next sixty years this Prince Street Campus grew by a further 17 acres and was developed to include fraternitie’s houses; dormitories; and academic buildings including Anderson Hall; Sibley Library; Eastman and Carnegie Laboratories the Memorial Art Gallery and Cutler Union.

Twentieth century


The first female students were admitted in 1900- the result of an effort led by Susan B. Anthony and Helen Barrett Montgomery. During the 1890s a number of women took classes and labs at the university as “visitors” but were not officially enrolled nor were their records included in the college register. President David Jayne Hill allowed the first woman- Helen E. Wilkinson- to enroll as a normal student although she was not allowed to matriculate or to pursue a degree. Thirty-three women enrolled among the first class in 1900 and Ella S. Wilcoxen was the first to receive a degree in 1901. The first female member of the faculty was Elizabeth Denio who retired as Professor Emeritus in 1917. Male students moved to River Campus upon its completion in 1930 while the female students remained on the Prince Street campus until 1955.


Major growth occurred under the leadership of Benjamin Rush Rhees over his 1900-1935 tenure. During this period George Eastman became a major donor giving more than $50 million to the university during his life. Under the patronage of Eastman the Eastman School of Music was created in 1921. In 1925 at the behest of the General Education Board and with significant support for John D. Rockefeller George Eastman and Henry A. Strong’s family medical and dental schools were created. The university award its first Ph.D that same year.

During World War II University of Rochester was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program which offered students a path to a Navy commission. In 1942, the university was invited to join the Association of American Universities as an affiliate member and it was made a full member by 1944. Between 1946 and 1947 in infamous uranium experiments researchers at the university injected uranium-234 and uranium-235 into six people to study how much uranium their kidneys could tolerate before becoming damaged.

In 1955 the separate colleges for men and women were merged into The College on the River Campus. In 1958 three new schools were created in engineering; business administration and education. The Graduate School of Management was named after William E. Simon- former Secretary of the Treasury in 1986. He committed significant funds to the school because of his belief in the school’s free market philosophy and grounding in economic analysis.

Financial decline and name change controversy

Following the princely gifts given throughout his life George Eastman left the entirety of his estate to the university after his death by suicide. The total of these gifts surpassed $100 million before inflation and as such Rochester enjoyed a privileged position amongst the most well endowed universities. During the expansion years between 1936 and 1976 the University of Rochester’s financial position ranked third, near Harvard University’s endowment and the University of Texas System’s Permanent University Fund. Due to a decline in the value of large investments and a lack of portfolio diversity the university’s place dropped to the top 25 by the end of the 1980s. At the same time the preeminence of the city of Rochester’s major employers began to decline.

In response the University commissioned a study to determine if the name of the institution should be changed to “Eastman University” or “Eastman Rochester University”. The study concluded a name change could be beneficial because the use of a place name in the title led respondents to incorrectly believe it was a public university, and because the name “Rochester” connoted a “cold and distant outpost.” Reports of the latter conclusion led to controversy and criticism in the Rochester community. Ultimately, the name “University of Rochester” was retained.

Renaissance Plan
In 1995 University of Rochester president Thomas H. Jackson announced the launch of a “Renaissance Plan” for The College that reduced enrollment from 4,500 to 3,600 creating a more selective admissions process. The plan also revised the undergraduate curriculum significantly creating the current system with only one required course and only a few distribution requirements known as clusters. Part of this plan called for the end of graduate doctoral studies in chemical engineering; comparative literature; linguistics; and mathematics the last of which was met by national outcry. The plan was largely scrapped and mathematics exists as a graduate course of study to this day.

Twenty-first century

Meliora Challenge

Shortly after taking office university president Joel Seligman commenced the private phase of the “Meliora Challenge”- a $1.2 billion capital campaign- in 2005. The campaign reached its goal in 2015- a year before the campaign was slated to conclude. In 2016, the university announced the Meliora Challenge had exceeded its goal and surpassed $1.36 billion. These funds were allocated to support over 100 new endowed faculty positions and nearly 400 new scholarships.

The Mangelsdorf Years

On December 17, 2018 the University of Rochester announced that Sarah C. Mangelsdorf would succeed Richard Feldman as President of the University. Her term started in July 2019 with a formal inauguration following in October during Meliora Weekend. Mangelsdorf is the first woman to serve as President of the University and the first person with a degree in psychology to be appointed to Rochester’s highest office.

In 2019 students from China mobilized by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) defaced murals in the University’s access tunnels which had expressed support for the 2019 Hong Kong Protests, condemned the oppression of the Uighurs, and advocated for Taiwanese independence. The act was widely seen as a continuation of overseas censorship of Chinese issues. In response a large group of students recreated the original murals. There have also been calls for Chinese government run CSSA to be banned from campus.


Rochester is a member of the Association of American Universities and is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”.

Rochester had a research expenditure of $370 million in 2018.

In 2008 Rochester ranked 44th nationally in research spending but this ranking has declined gradually to 68 in 2018.

Some of the major research centers include the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a laser-based nuclear fusion facility, and the extensive research facilities at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Recently the university has also engaged in a series of new initiatives to expand its programs in biomedical engineering and optics including the construction of the new $37 million Robert B. Goergen Hall for Biomedical Engineering and Optics on the River Campus.

Other new research initiatives include a cancer stem cell program and a Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. UR also has the ninth highest technology revenue among U.S. higher education institutions with $46 million being paid for commercial rights to university technology and research in 2009. Notable patents include Zoloft and Gardasil. WeBWorK, a web-based system for checking homework and providing immediate feedback for students was developed by University of Rochester professors Gage and Pizer. The system is now in use at over 800 universities and colleges as well as several secondary and primary schools. Rochester scientists work in diverse areas. For example, physicists developed a technique for etching metal surfaces such as platinum; titanium; and brass with powerful lasers enabling self-cleaning surfaces that repel water droplets and will not rust if tilted at a 4 degree angle; and medical researchers are exploring how brains rid themselves of toxic waste during sleep.