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Evolution of Earth and Life, examining today's evidence for Origins questions along the coast of Brittany


Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus crisis, we cannot offer this class this academic year. If you were selected for this class and need to follow a Bachelor Honours Class in order to graduate this academic year, please contact

Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Please note: For this class there will be additional costs (€450,-) for the excursion.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Bachelor and Master students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.

Key words:

Skills: Fieldwork in natural sciences.

Topics: The geological time scale, the tree of life, land forms and underlying geological structure.

Disciplines: Geobiology, marine science, biology, ecology, physics.


Life in all its diversity evolved in the marine environment. In this course taught at Leiden University and at the Marine Center of the Sorbonne University, Paris, in Roscoff, we teach aspects of the Tree of Life, we focus on the transition from mono-cellular life to animal life conquering the continents in the early Paleozoic, and we address Earth history from the time of the origin of life to the adaptations that made the emergence of land life possible.

We bring together a multidisciplinary team of specialists: marine biologists, ecologists, physicists and geophysicists, isotope geochemists, paleontologists and geologists to teach a course in geobiology with special interest in the Tree of Life, the origin of life, and the environments in which life evolved.

There is some consensus that the origin of life dates back to the earliest Archean or even the late Hadean. The earliest sediments in the rock record contain banded iron formation lithologies, taken as indicative for oxygen production, and potentially photosynthesis. There is much controversy on the fossil record from these earliest rocks, and although there was liquid water, we don’t know what other environmental conditions favored the creation of at first mono-cellular life.

At least as enigmatic is the emergence of multi-cellular life in the late Proterozoic. Was the increased oxygen partial pressure in the atmosphere necessary or environmental stress caused by the (perhaps first) ice ages in the late Proterozoic? And how was the development of skeletal elements related to the Cambrian explosion, in which we recognize all of the modern phyla.
Life emerged through different crises, including global phases of extinction. Each of these mass extinctions not only decimated life, but also provided new possibilities for the survivors. The final steps forward of life on the planet covered in the course is the adaptation to life conditions on land.

Course objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Have an understanding of the relation of land forms and underlying geological structures;

  • Have an understanding of different taxa of the Tree of life, both in the paleontological record and in the modern marine environment;

  • Develop a holistic view of earth processes occurring at the earth surface through time from geophysical and geochemical view points on the origin and evolution of life.

Programme and timetable:

Lectures in the Evening in Leiden in week 23 and 24: Tue 2 June Wed 3 June, Thu 4 June and Fri 5 June & Mon 8 June, Tue 9 June, Wed 10 June, Thu 11 June from 17.00 till 20.00 hrs.

Excursion to Roscoff in week 28 and 29: Sat 4 July up to and including Sat 18 July.

Themes for the lectures in June (2 weeks, 4 evening sessions per week):

Theme 1: Geology: setting the stage for life:
Lecture 1: From planetary accretion to continents. Earth history in the early stages of the earth;
Lecture 2: Timescales in Geology. From isotopic dating techniques to division of Earth history into different periods;
Lecture 3: The origin and significance of the earth’s magnetic shield;
Lecture 4: The composition of the early atmosphere, the oceans, and the sea floor, how this composition changed with time, and its relevance for the origin of life on earth.

Theme 2: Young Earth, young life:
Lecture 5: Stable isotope systems as tracers of life: - Si and Fe isotopes as indicators of metabolism in the Archean; - 13C/12C fractionation through time, biological and inorganic causes.
Lecture 6: Exo Life;
Lecture 7: origin of Life: The history of theories on the origin of life or biogenesis. Comparison of chemical and physical approaches to biogenetic theories. Biogenesis will be placed within the ecological framework of a development of reducing - oxidising conditions;
Lecture 8: The thermodynamics of photosynthesis and its role in the development of the biosphere and its import on the atmosphere.

Theme 3: Crises and opportunities:
Lecture 9: Proterozoic – Cambrian transition. The first fossils of multicellular organisms, known as the Ediacara fauna, represent life forms very different of anything living today. After the Cambrian explosion, fossils show more familiar Bauplans. However, deposits like the Burgess shale revealed that in that period too, organisms thrived in the oceans unlike anything living today;
Lecture 10: Crises and opportunities. During the Palaeozoic, two mass extinctions occurred. The third major extinction wave, the largest ever recorded, signified the end of the era. About the possible causes of the various mass extinctions, the devastation they caused, and the opportunities provided during the aftermath.

Theme 4: Tree of life:
Lecture 11: Genealogy of living organisms. From single cell to higher organisms;
Lecture 12: Stromatolites, a singular visual portal into deep time on earth, the emergence of life, and the evolving of the beautiful forms of life of modern time;
Lecture 13: Modelling gene-regulation and cell-movement in early development of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis and the scleractinian coral Acropora mellipora.

Theme 5: Evolution towards land:
Lecture 14: A Tree of Plants: From a blue to a green planet;
Lecture 15: On the emergence of insects from crustaceans;
Lecture 16: Evolution of Chordata: there is something fishy about us;
Lecture 17: To boldly go where no vertebrate has gone before.


Huygens Laboratory. Room to be announced.

Reading list:

  • Marine biology, Jeffrey S. Levinton, Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2008, ISBN13: 978-0-19-532694-9;

  • An Introduction to the Earth-Life System, edited by Charles Cockell (Charles Cockell, Richard Corfield, Neil Edwards, and Nigel Harris). ISBN: 9870521729536 (paperback versie), jaar van uitgave 2007;

  • The world’s beaches. A global guide to the science of the shoreline, O.H. Pilkey, W.J. Neal, J.T. Kelley and J.A.G. Cooper. University of California Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-520-26872-2;

  • Excursion guides;

  • Library books, covering the various aspects of the excursion, will be made available during the field course.

Other possible literature will be announced in class or via a shared folder.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures: 16 lectures of 1.5 hours; (attendance is mandatory)

  • Excursion: one excursion of 14 days in France; (attendance is mandatory)

  • Practical work: 14 x a half day as part of the excursion to France; (attendance is mandatory)

  • Assignments & final essay: 10 hours as part of the excursion to France.

All assignments are hand in before the end of the excursion; final grades can be passed on to the education departments within days from return from the excursion (i.e. immediately after August 31st.).

Assessment methods:

The assessment methods will look as follows:

  • 5% active in-class participation + interactive engagement with course material;

  • 10% blog-reports of each lecture via a shared folder (100 – 200 words) + understanding of course content (deadline weeks 23 & 24);

  • 5% oral reports in the form of a class room presentation, topics per excursion day (groups of 2, 15 min. max. each) + individual engagement with course material (deadline weeks 34 & 35);

  • 80% final reports on excursion assignments: 1.Marine Biology. (30%), 2. Plankton biodiversity experiment (20%), 3. Geology (30%) + expression of holistic understanding of the course (deadline week 35, submission: final day of the excursion).

It is not required to successfully complete all partial exams in order to pass this course.
Students are allowed to compensate a ‘fail’ (grades up to and including 5.0).


Blackboard will not be used in this course. Students can register for a shared folder one week prior to the start of the course.

Registration process:

Please contact prof. dr. Jan Wijbrans to sign up. Registration is possible until April 15th. The maximum number of students is 25.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally after successful completion of the Bachelor Honours Class.


Prof. dr. Jan Wijbrans: