Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

The last 3 million years at a snail's pace: a tiny trapdoor opens a new way to date the past

05.08.2011
Scientists at the University of York, using an 'amino acid time capsule', have led the largest ever programme to date the British Quaternary period, stretching back nearly three million years.

It is the first widespread application of refinements of the 40-year-old technique of amino acid geochronology. The refined method, developed at York’s BioArCh laboratories, measures the breakdown of a closed system of protein in fossil snail shells, and provides a method of dating archaeological and geological sites.

Britain has an unparalleled studied record of fossil-rich terrestrial sediments from the Quaternary, a period that includes relatively long glacial episodes – known as the Ice Age – interspersed with shorter ‘interglacial’ periods where temperatures may have exceeded present day values.

However, too often the interglacial deposits have proved difficult to link to global climatic signals because they are just small isolated exposures, often revealed by quarrying.

Using the new method, known as amino acid racemization, it will be possible to link climatic records from deep sea sediments and ice cores with the responses of plants and animals, including humans, to climate change over the last three million years. The research is published in the latest issue of Nature.

The new method was developed by Dr Kirsty Penkman, of the Department of Chemistry, alongside Professor Matthew Collins of the Department of Archaeology at York, and measures the the extent of protein degradation in calcareous fossils such as mollusc shells. It is based on the analysis of intra-crystalline amino acids – the building blocks of protein – preserved in the fossil opercula (the little ‘trapdoor’ the snail uses to shut itself away inside its shell) of the freshwater gastropod Bithynia. It provides the first single method that is able to accurately date such a wide range of sites over this time period.

Dr Penkman said: "The amino acids are securely preserved within calcium carbonate crystals of the opercula. This crystal cage protects the protein from external environmental factors, so the extent of internal protein degradation allows us to identify the age of the samples. In essence, they are a protein time capsule.

“This framework can be used to tell us in greater detail than ever before how plants and animals reacted to glacial and interglacial periods, and has helped us establish the patterns of human occupation of Britain, supporting the view that these islands were deserted in the Last Interglacial period.”

In a close collaboration with palaeontologist Dr Richard Preece in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, the study examined a total of 470 fossil remains from 71 sites in the UK and three on continental Europe. The method proved highly reliable with more than 98 per cent of samples yielding useful results, resulting in the largest ever geochronological programme of the British Pleistocene.

Professor Collins said: "When we started this work 11 years ago, we thought it was going to be relatively straightforward to identify a good material for dating, but the first 3 years of research on shells showed that the stability of the mineral itself was vital. The tiny trapdoor of a snail proved to be the key to success."

Dr Preece added: “Luckily, fossil opercula are common in Quaternary sediments around the world, so the new technique can be used to build regional Ice Age chronologies everywhere, giving it enormous international scope”.

Vital to the study were the inter-disciplinary collaborations with Quaternary scientists, the core team of which involved researchers at the Department of Geography, University of Durham; Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham; Institute of Archaeology, University College London; the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity, Leiden and the Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum.

The analyses were funded by English Heritage, Natural Environment Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. The research is a contribution to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

David Garner | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.york.ac.uk
http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2011/research/amino-acid/

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Clear as mud: Desiccation cracks help reveal the shape of water on Mars
20.04.2018 | Geological Society of America

nachricht Hurricane Harvey: Dutch-Texan research shows most fatalities occurred outside flood zones
19.04.2018 | European Geosciences Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Spider silk key to new bone-fixing composite

University of Connecticut researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.

Repairing major load-bearing bones such as those in the leg can be a long and uncomfortable process.

Im Focus: Writing and deleting magnets with lasers

Study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces is the outcome of an international effort that included teams from Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and the US.

Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia...

Im Focus: Gamma-ray flashes from plasma filaments

Novel highly efficient and brilliant gamma-ray source: Based on model calculations, physicists of the Max PIanck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg propose a novel method for an efficient high-brilliance gamma-ray source. A giant collimated gamma-ray pulse is generated from the interaction of a dense ultra-relativistic electron beam with a thin solid conductor. Energetic gamma-rays are copiously produced as the electron beam splits into filaments while propagating across the conductor. The resulting gamma-ray energy and flux enable novel experiments in nuclear and fundamental physics.

The typical wavelength of light interacting with an object of the microcosm scales with the size of this object. For atoms, this ranges from visible light to...

Im Focus: Basel researchers succeed in cultivating cartilage from stem cells

Stable joint cartilage can be produced from adult stem cells originating from bone marrow. This is made possible by inducing specific molecular processes occurring during embryonic cartilage formation, as researchers from the University and University Hospital of Basel report in the scientific journal PNAS.

Certain mesenchymal stem/stromal cells from the bone marrow of adults are considered extremely promising for skeletal tissue regeneration. These adult stem...

Im Focus: Like a wedge in a hinge

Researchers lay groundwork to tailor drugs for new targets in cancer therapy

In the fight against cancer, scientists are developing new drugs to hit tumor cells at so far unused weak points. Such a “sore spot” is the protein complex...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

IWOLIA: A conference bringing together German Industrie 4.0 and French Industrie du Futur

09.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Joining metals without welding

23.04.2018 | Trade Fair News

Researchers illuminate the path to a new era of microelectronics

23.04.2018 | Information Technology

Rochester scientists discover gene controlling genetic recombination rates

23.04.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>