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NASA-Funded Researchers Credit Asteroid for Mass Extinction

Aired February 22, 2001 - 4:43 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Ever wonder what was happening on Earth, say, 250 million years ago? Well, apparently not much, thanks to a devastating collision with an asteroid. A team of NASA-funded researchers say that cosmic crash later triggered a series of events that led to the extinction of 90 percent of life on Earth. Their findings will be published in tomorrow's "Journal of Science."

Joining us to "unearth" more of the facts is Dr. Luann Becker; she's the lead researcher and acting professor for Earth and Sciences at the University of Washington-Seattle.

Thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Becker. The question everybody is asking is, are you saying that this is the event that led to the end of dinosaurs on Earth?

DR. LUANN BECKER, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON-SEATTLE: Well, actually, no, I'm not. I'm referring to an event that happened well before the dinosaurs -- 250 million years ago -- referred to the Impermian (ph) Extinction Event, also called the Mother of All Extinction Events in the geologic record.

CHEN: So, when you talk about 90 percent of life on Earth, what kind of life was there on Earth?

BECKER: Well, actually, life was teeming on Earth. We had a lot of marine organisms living at that time; lots of terrestrial plants; lots of terrestrial life as well. It was a very robust time for life.

CHEN: And then, was there one sudden -- as we see in this, sort of, illustration -- one sudden catastrophic event, and everything went dark, or what happened?

BECKER: Well, actually, what I think happens in these sorts of events -- kind of like what happened to the dinosaurs -- you have a large impacting body hit the Earth, and those sorts of things can cause a lot of things to go wrong, and in fact, it can trigger massive volcanism potentially; and also trigger a lot of climate variability; a lot of changes that life can't deal with, in such a short abrupt change. So, indeed, this seems to have been very devastating to life at this time.

CHEN: But it was also a change for rebirth, I guess?

BECKER: Well, absolutely. What we see in these sorts of major extinction events throughout the record is that, shortly after these things happen, life evolves again and comes back even more robust in a completely different way, so, in fact, these sorts of event are probably why we are here talking today. If we don't have these sorts of extinctions, we may not have had mankind.

CHEN: Dr. Luann Becker from the University of Washington; thanks very much for being with us today and your insight about the past.

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