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Microbial Discovery Activity

Earth History: Time Flies, No


Matter What the Scale

Author
Robin Patterson, PhD
Butler County Community College
Butler, PA
robin.patterson@bc3.edu

Contributor
Liliana Rodriguez, MPH, RM(AAM), M(ASCP)
The University of Texas Health Science Center
School of Public Health at Houston
liliana.f.rodriguez@uth.tmc.edu

Intended Audience
K-4
5-8
9-12 X

Activity Characteristics
Classroom setting X
Uses hands-on manipulatives X
Requires group work X
Requires mathematical skills X

American Society for Microbiology


Education Department
1752 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
EducationResources@asmusa.org
Introduction
Description
In this exercise students apply their mathematical skills to relate a geological time scale to a yearly
calendar to describe Earth's history in a fun and entertaining way.

Abstract
In this two-part activity, which uses discovery and an inquiry approach, the participants will be
given cartoon drawings representing significant events in the history of the Earth and asked to place
them on a timeline made of colored ribbon. Then they mathematically relate the geologic time scale
to a yearly calendar. After the calculations, they return to the timeline to reassess the placement of
the events.

Core Themes Addressed


General Science Concepts X
Microbial Cell Biology
Microbial Genetics
Microorganisms and Humans
Microorganisms and the Environment
Microbial Evolution and Diversity X
Other -Common properties of life;
Cellular components

Keywords
Earth history, microbial evolution, historical events, time scales.

Learning Objectives
At the completion of these activities students should be able to:
• Identify significant events in microbial evolution
• Translate information from one mathematical scale to another
• Understand the perennial dominance of microbes, past and present
• Understand the order of key events in evolution relating to microbes
• Gain an appreciation about the place of microbes in earth's history

Acknowledgements
This activity was adapted from Earth History: A Microbial Story authored by Dr. Douglas Zook from
Boston University. It was originally published in his 1992 book The Microcosmos Curriculum Guide
to Exploring Microbial Space, from Kendall-Hunt Publishing. We thank Dr. Zook for granting
permission to use parts of his exercise and the cartoon illustrations. The artist is Ann Powers, BFA
from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more information
about his book see the supplementary information section of the Teacher's handout.

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National Science Education Standards Addressed
Science Content Standards 9-12

1. Earth and Space Science


Evolution of the earth system
2. Life Science
Biological evolution

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Teacher Handout
Earth History: Time Flies, No Matter What the
Scale

Student Prior Knowledge


Students need mathematical (algebraic) skills, know how to use a calculator, and have some
knowledge about the geological history of Earth.

Teacher Background Information


This exercise provides a timeline of the evolution of life through the major events in the development
of life on the planet Earth. Ten cartoon illustrations are provided, each corresponding to a major
event in evolution. Students can work in groups to organize these cartoons in chronological order.
You can use the Earth Time line chart below to start a discussion about major biological or geological
events on Earth's history prior to the activity, or give the students an assignment to be completed
before class. You can ask them to research cyanobacteria as the initial inventors of photosynthesis
and the creation of stromatolites. There are several excellent resources and websites for them to
review the topic, such as The Museum of Paleontology at UC at:
[http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/exhibits/geologictime.php], and the book The Microcosmos
Curriculum Guide to Exploring Microbial Space, from Kendall-Hunt Publishing.

Class Time
Approximately one hour class time is required but can be shortened by reducing the number of
events to be studied.

Teacher Preparation Time


About 30 minutes to make photocopies and one set of overhead transparencies of the cartoon
illustrations, and taping pieces of ribbon on the classroom walls.

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Materials and Equipment
One set per group:

1. Photocopies of student worksheets and cartoon sheets. The cartoon sheets can be reduced in
size and laminated for re-use.
2. Paperclips or clothes pins
3. Five colors of ribbon or streamers, each at least 5 feet long, connected together to make one
long string. Color choice is not critical.
4. Masking tape
5. Calculator
6. Correlation of events worksheet
7. Calendar template

Methods
1. Photocopy the cartoon illustrations. It is useful to photocopy the illustrations on colored
paper. You can either use one color for each event or you can use one color for each group.
2. You may want to make overhead transparencies to assist with class discussion of the events.
3. Before class, tape together the lengths of ribbon and extend the ribbon around the room,
taping to the wall wherever necessary.
4. Distribute one set of cartoons, one correlation of events worksheet, and one calendar
template per group.

Safety Precautions
None

Assessment
Have the students complete the correlation of events worksheet in small groups and report back to
the larger group about their conclusions.

Supplementary Information
Earth Time line, worksheet, calendar, cartoon illustrations and their descriptions are listed on the
following pages.

The 500-page Microcosmos Curriculum Guide to Exploring Microbial Space can be purchased for $40
($35.00 + $5 S&H). Send a check made out to “Int’l Symbiosis Society” to:

Microcosmos Project/ISS
c/o Dr. Douglas Zook
Boston University
Two Sherborn Street
Boston, MA 02215
dzook@bu.edu

There is also an updated 16 image new overhead transparency set that replaces the existing one in
the Earth History activity of the book for $35 (Includes shipping and handling).

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Earth Time Line

Cartoon Era Period Years Ago Billions of Geological and Biological Events
Years Ago
1. Cosmic Dust Archean 4,600,000,000 4.6* Origins of earth and our solar system
2. Extended Rain 4,200,000,000 4.2 Changes that led to creation of oceans and other bodies of water
Forecast
3. Primordial Soup Proterozoic 3,900,000,000 3.9 End of major impacts by other particles. Self-copying chemicals
form in the hot broth of early Earth forming the bricks for life.
First unicellular microorganisms
4. Oxygen Factory 2,500,000,000 2.5 Photosynthetic microbes (cyanobacteria) produce oxygen. Increase
of O2 leads to begining of banded iron formations.
5. Eukaryotic Cell 1,400,000,000 1.5-2.0 First eukaryotic organisms evolve.
6.Let's Get Together 1,000,000,000 1.0 Begining of multicellular eukaryotes
7. Plants Race Animals Paleozoic Silurian 438,000,000 0.438 First plants able to colonize land
8. Eek Mammals! Mesozoic Triassic 248,000,000 0.248 (220MYA) First mammals appear
9.Trouble in Pangea Jurasic 225,000,000 0.225 Separation of a single land mass into continents
10. Homo sapiens Cenozoic Quaternary 2,000,000 0.002 First humans appear

* If you were to count to 4.6 billion (one number per second) it would take nearly 150 years!

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Key to Cartoon Illustrations (from the most ancient event).

1. When Cosmic Dust Goes Unswept (4.6 billion years ago)


The earth is about 4.6 billion years old. This cartoon represents the origins of
the universe. It is theorized that the universe began to expand over 8 billion
years ago, quickly passing from the age of energy to the age of matter. The
earth itself was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The early earth was a
land of molten rock and violent volcanic activity. The earth’s crust was
solidifying at this time, called the Hadean eon, since no rocks have been
found that exceed 4.3 billion years old. These rocks show no traces of life (or
at least none that can be traced with our current level of technology)

2. 40 Million Years of Rain (4.2 billion years ago)


As the earth was forming, gasses were released from the molten core in
volcanic activity. These gasses formed a cloud around the earth and were
held as an atmosphere by the earth’s gravity. At first the earth was so hot
that water was present only as a vapor. As the earth cooled and the crust
formed the vapor condensed to liquid water and the rain began to fall. It
rained such an enormous quantity over millions of years that the oceans of
the world were formed. The atmospheric gasses were dissolved in this rain.

3. Primordial Soup (4 billion years ago)


The atmospheric gasses that were dissolved in the rain may have reacted
with one another in the presence of the enormous amount of energy present
on the planet to produce small organic molecules. Neither oxidation (there
was no free oxygen) nor decay (there were no bacteria) would have destroyed
these molecules and they would have accumulated in the oceans for hundreds
of millions of years. With the accumulation of the small organic compounds,
the oceans became a thick, warm organic soup containing a variety of organic
molecules. The newly-formed organic molecules likely polymerized to
produce still larger molecules and eventually a protocell arose. This structure
would likely have had a lipid - protein membrane that carried on anaerobic
energy metabolism and was a heterotroph (an organism that took in
preformed food), fermenting the food with some degree of enzymatic activity.
Once these protocells were self-replicating, they became true cells and
biological evolution began.

4. Oxygen Factory (2.5 billion years ago)


The evolution of photosynthesizing organisms caused oxygen to enter the
atmosphere. The atmosphere became oxidizing rather than reducing. Oxygen
in the upper atmosphere formed ozone, which filtered UV light. The presence
of oxygen also meant that most environments were unsuitable for anaerobic
prokaryotes. Photosynthetic cyanobacteria and aerobic bacteria proliferated
as new metabolic pathways evolved.

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5. Endosymbiont Recruitment (1.5 - 2 billion years ago)
Most likely the eukaryotic cell evolved from the prokaryotic cell, acquiring its
organelles gradually. The nucleus may have developed by an invagination of
the plasma membrane. The mitochondria may have been free-living aerobic
prokaryotes and the chloroplasts may have been free-living cyanobacteria.
Life was still aquatic at this point.

6. Love at First Sight (1 billion years ago)


It is not known when multicellularity began but the first multicelled
creatures were likely microscopic. Sexual reproduction would have its origins
here and would have been an important first step toward the development of
complex macroscopic organisms. The geologic period is the Precambrian era.

7. Plants Race Animals to Land (438 million years ago)


The Cambrian and Ordovician periods saw the marine algae and marine
invertebrates flourish. During the Silurian period (408 to 438 million years
ago) low lying primitive vascular plants appeared on land and the first jawed
fishes appeared in the oceans. During the Devonian period, the first seed
ferns appeared (360 - 408 million years ago).

8. EEK Mammals! (248 million years ago)


The first reptiles appear in the Carboniferous period 286 - 360 million years
ago (mya). During the Triassic period, the first dinosaurs and mammals
appear (200 mya). Placental mammals appear during the Cretaceous period -
about 100 mya.

9. Trouble in Pangea (175 - 225 million years ago)


The Continental Drift theory, proposed by Alfred Wegener, states that the
continents are not fixed and instead, their positions have changed over time
and continue to change. About 225 mya, the continents were joined to form
one supercontinent called Pangea which then divided into two sub-
continents. These split to form the continents of today. Continental drift
explains why some coastlines are mirror images of each other (Africa and
South America, for example) and why fossils of the same seed fern have been
found on all southern continents. Land masses drift due to movement of slab-
like plates of the earth’s crust that float on a hot mantle layer. These slabs
are called plates and their movement is called plate tectonics. The plates
move because of seafloor spreading at ocean ridges.

10. Living in Concrete Jungle Cartoon (2 million years ago)


Monkey-like primates appear about 30 mya. The first hominids appear 2 - 6
mya and humans appear during the Pleistocene era, 2 mya.

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Correlation of Events with Modern Calendars Worksheet.
One per group

Time framea Time Unitsc Calendar location (365 day


Event
(years ago) elapsedb (%) year)
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
aTimeframe - length of time before present. BYA = billion years ago;
MYA = million years ago.
bTime elapsed - length of time since formation of planet. Byr = billion
years; Myr = million years.
cUnits - 5 elapsed. Calculated by dividing Time elapsed for current
stop (column 3) by estimated age of Earth (4.5 billion years).
fYear - day of 365-day year. Calculated by multiplying 365 days by %
of current stop.

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Calendar Template - One Year

Su M T W Th F Sa Su M T W Th F Sa Su M T W Th F Sa
January February March
1 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
9 10 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
16 17 18 19 20 21 22 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
23 24 25 26 27 28 29 27 28 26 27 28 29 30 31
30 31
April May June
1 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
9 10 11 12 13 14 15 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
16 17 18 19 20 21 22 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
23 24 25 26 27 28 29 28 29 30 31 25 26 27 28 29 30
30
July August September
1 1 2 3 4 5 1 2
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
9 10 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
16 17 18 19 20 21 22 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
23 24 25 26 27 28 29 27 28 29 30 31 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
30 31
October November December
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 1 2
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
15 16 17 18 19 20 21 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
22 23 24 25 26 27 28 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
29 30 31 26 27 28 29 30 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
31

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Correlation of Events with Modern Calendars
Answer Key

Time framea Time Unitsc Calendar location (365 day


Event
(years ago) elapsedb (%) year)
1 4.5 BYA 0 0 Day 1 (Jan 1)
2 4.2 BYA 0.3 BYR 6.7 Day 24 (Jan 24)
3 4 BYA 1.8 BYR 13.3 Day 49 (Feb 18)
4 2.5 BYA 2.5 BYR 44.4 Day 162 (June 10)
3.05
5 1.5 BYA 66.7 Day 243 (Aug 30)
BYR
6 1.0 BYA 3.5 BYR 77.8 Day 284 (Oct 12)
3,910
7 438 MYA 90.3 Day 330 (Nov 22)
MYR
3,995
8 248 MYA 94.5 Day 345 (Dec 7)
MYR
4,062
9 225 MYA 95 Day 347 (Dec 9)
MYR
4,140
10 2 MYA 99.95 Day 365 (Dec 31)
MYR
aTimeframe - length of time before present. BYA = billion years ago;
MYA = million years ago.
bTime elapsed - length of time since formation of planet. Byr = billion
years; Myr = million years.
cUnits - 5 elapsed. Calculated by dividing Time elapsed for current
stop (column 3) by estimated age of Earth (4.5 billion years).
fYear - day of 365-day year. Calculated by multiplying 365 days by %
of current stop.

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Student Handout
Earth History: Time Flies, No Matter What the
Scale

Introduction
This exercise provides a timeline of the evolution of life through the major events in the development
of life on the planet Earth. Nine cartoon illustrations are provided, each corresponding to a major
event in evolution. You and the other members in your group be challenged to mathematically relate
the geologic time scale of Earth's history to a yearly calendar, and to organize the cartoon in a
historical sequence.

Vocabulary:
Cyanobacteria - Bacteria likely responsible for the creation of earth's oxygen atmosphere. They were
the dominant lifeform on Earth for over 2 billion years. Today they are nearly extinct, living a
precarious existence in only a few localities worldwide.

Photosynthesis - The process by which plants, some bacteria, and some protistans use the energy
from the sun to produce sugar, which respiration in the cells converts into ATP, the "fuel" used by all
living things. The conversion of unusable sunlight energy into usable chemical energy, is associated
with the actions of the green pigment chlorophyll

Stromatolites - Communities of microorganisms growing in rock-like buildups of microbial mats that


form in limestone- forming environments. These communities include the oldest known fossils,
dating back some 3.5 billion years ago. They are prokaryotes(primitive organisms lacking a cellular
nucleus) that were abundant in warm aquatic environments and built reefs similarly to the way
coral does it today.

Materials check list (per group)


1. One set of cartoon illustrations
2. Paperclips or clothes pins
3. Calculator
4. Correlation of events worksheet
5. Calendar template
6. Pencil and eraser

Procedure
Organizing the Earth's History Time-line
1. As a group, review the cartoon illustrations and deduce the scenario. What event is being
depicted in the illustration? How long ago do you think it happened?

2. Using paperclips, affix the cartoons on the ribbon where you think they might belong. One
end refers to the present; the other end refers to 5 Billion Years Ago (BYA).

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3. Return to your seat. Now you will convert the historical date assigned to great events in
microbial history into a date within a more familiar time scale to aid you in viewing
evolution in its proper scale.

Mathematically relate a geologic time scale to a yearly calendar

1. Your team should receive instructions, a worksheet for recording your calculations, a blank
calendar covering one year, and a list of events in evolution.

2. Begin by recording the names of your team members on the worksheet.

3. Your team will be assigned events from evolutionary (and geological) history.

4. Perform the calculations and record the results on the worksheet.

5. Once you complete each conversion from historical time to the appropriate time scale, mark
the position of that event on the calendar.

a. First, identify this "Event" on the worksheet.


b. Enter the "Historical date" currently assigned to this event.
c. Subtract the historical date from the age of the Earth (4.5 billion years = 4,500 million
years). This "Time elapsed" value represents the length of time that passed between the
formation of Earth and the occurrence of this event.
d. Divide the time elapsed value by the total age of the Earth, and multiply by 100%. This
"Percent elapsed" value is the proportion of Earth’s history that passed before this event.
e. Identify the total time on the calendar (365 days).
f. Multiply the percent time elapsed by the total time on the calendar.
g. Find and mark this point on the calendar.
h. Repeat these steps for each of the events assigned to your team.
i. When completed, review your results.
j. Submit this assignment as directed by your instructor.
An example: Event – first cell.

Historical date: 3.5 BYA


Time elapsed: 4.5 BY – 3.5 BY = 1.0 BY
Percent elapsed: (1.0 / 4.5 ) x 100% = 22%
Length of current calendar: 365 days
Location on current calendar: 365 x .22 = 80.3
ANSWER: 1/3rd through the 81st day (March 23rd).
6. How did you do with the placement of the cartoons on the timeline?

7. Return to the timeline and reposition the cartoons if necessary.

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Time Flies, No Matter What the Scale
Worksheet (Scale = Year)
Team Members:

Correlation of Events with Modern Calendars

Time framea Time Unitsc


Event Calendar location (365 day year)
(years ago) elapsedb (%)

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
aTime frame - length of time before present. BYA = billion years ago; MYA = million

years ago.
bTime elapsed - length of time since formation of planet. Byr = billion years; Myr =

million years.
cUnits - 5 elapsed. Calculated by dividing Time elapsed for current stop (column 3)
by estimated age of Earth (4.5 billion years).
fYear - day of 365-day year. Calculated by multiplying 365 days by % of current stop.

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