Biomarkers and their application to the study of pigments in the fossil record

  • Holly Jones

Student thesis: Phd


The idea of studying the colour of organisms in the fossil record has for a long timeseemed nothing more than the far flung dreams of a few idealistic palaeontologists.The last 5 years however have brought sweeping advances in this area, such that theidea is no longer hypothetical but an actual possibilty. Recent studies on the preserva-tion of fossilised pigment containing organelles, melanosomes, have hailed a new eraof palaeontological study and reconstruction. In this work geochemical techniques areapplied to study such structures in fossil feathers and an amphibian, to determine thenecessary level of confidence that these structures are not bacterial, discuss the relativeadvantages and disadvantages of the techniques used in the study of fossil melanin, andextend the study of fossil colour to other pigments in fossil algae. Fourier transforminfrared spectroscopy (FTIR) data is shown to provide some of the most consistentevidence of the presence of melanin, however it does not enable us to adequately dis-tinguish between the two major types, eu- and pheomelanin. Determining the presenceof bacteria in fossil stromatolites is shown to be most effective by using tetra-methylammonium hydroxide assisted pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (Py-GCMS) to look for the distribution pattern of fatty acid methyl esters. Such analysisshows that samples identified as bacterial have identical patterns that differ signifi-cantly from those of fossil plants and animals. Such a biomarker is shown to be morereliable than hopanes, further commonly used bacterial biomarkers. The combination of FTIR and Py-GCMS suggest the presence of the red algal pigment phycoerythrin inthe Jurassic fossil Solenopora jurassica, strengthening its identification as a calcareousalga.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorBart Van Dongen (Supervisor), Roy Wogelius (Supervisor) & Phillip Manning (Supervisor)


  • organic geochemistry
  • palaeontology
  • inorganic geochemistry
  • pigment
  • fossil

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