Andrew Knoll has depicted the first three billion years of life on Earth using his studies of microfossils and innovative methods to illuminate their biochemical evolution. In recognition of his work, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is awarding him the Crafoord Prize in Geosciences for 2022, worth six million Swedish kronor.
Andrew Knoll, professor of natural history at Harvard University, USA, receives this year’s Crafoord Prize in Geosciences “for fundamental contributions to our understanding of the first three billion years of life on Earth and life’s interactions with the physical environment through time”.
For billions of years, Earth was an inhospitable place with an atmosphere full of gases such as methane and ammonia. Life comprised unicellular organisms that primarily lived off the chemical energy found in their surroundings. Cyanobacteria that developed photosynthesis were decisive steps forward, as they used sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water into biomass and free oxygen. Over time, a diversity of species arose and the world became a greener, more oxygen-rich place.
How did this actually occur, and how did life on Earth evolve over its first three billion years? These are the issues on which Andrew Knoll has provided fundamental insights. He has developed and combined methods for geological, biological and chemical analysis, which are now widely used by researchers around the globe. Using these methods, he has succeeded in determining the age of strata in bedrock and studied microscopically tiny fossils of unicellular and multicellular organisms from deep time.
“Andrew Knoll is an incredibly versatile researcher who has taught and inspired many younger researchers in his field, and those who have followed in his footsteps have further added to our knowledge of how life developed on Earth,” says Stefan Bengtson, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Class for geosciences.
In addition, Andrew Knoll is one of the researchers who have presented a feasible explanation for the third mass extinction, which happened 252 million years ago. More than 90 per cent of all species in the oceans and 70 per cent of land animals disappeared. The proposed cause is volcanoes in Siberia that emitted huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to toxic environments and an increase in the average temperature on Earth. He has also described how life returned after this disaster, in the form of many new plants and animals.
“I was born curious and have always felt that discovery provides ample reward for curiosity. To receive the Crafoord Prize is beyond aspiration, both humbling and deeply appreciated”, Andrew Knoll comments on the award.
Daniel Conley, Professor of Biogeochemistry
+46 70 749 4341
Stefan Bengtson, Professor Emeritus of Paleozoology
+46 70 811 6186
Vivi Vajda, Professor of Paleontology and Director of Research at the Swedish Museum of Natural History
+46 76 867 5062
Eva Nevelius, Press Secretary at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
+46 70 878 67 63