Friday, 11 February 2011

Teasing organic molecules from fossils

This last couple of weeks have been a tad busy...just for a change. A series of papers to complete, review and submit, coupled with meetings at the University of Manchester, entailing a rapid hop over the Atlantic (and yes, you all know how much I 'love' flying). Today, once again, I am sat back in my office at the University of Pennsylvania, watching my 2nd Mac start to splutter as it renders a 3D volume of a T. rex brain case from a micro CT you do. I think I might just have pushed the poor machine a little too far this time, as its been nearly two hours since it started rendering the said volume and its still not responding. This is why I have two Mac's. One to continue working upon, while the other works by itself...slowly, so has a morning shadow by the time it is done thinking about a problem. That said, it works, but you need patience!

While my 2nd Mac is stumbling its way through thousands of T. rex brain-case slice data, my other is being a little more organic. I have been burying myself into the fun world of organic geochemistry... please keep reading! As if it wasn't for the organic chemistry popping away inside of you, you would not be reading this. However, I have to ask, Why subject myself to such wondrous delights? Its quite simply the only way I can continue to work with my colleagues Dr Roy Wogelius and Dr Bart van Dongen (both at the University of Manchester). They have both been giving me a crash course, these past four years, on the organic and inorganic phases of life...a balance that exists now and into deep time. It seems that if I really want to get to grips with my fossils, I have to know my hopanoids from my geo-hopanes (I assure you that these are not medical conditions associated with digging dinosaurs) and also my FTIR from my Py-GCMS....not to mention your MALDI-TOF (now I'm sure that one should be a cocktail?).
Bart van Dongen hard at work with his Py-GCMS samples!
Over the next few weeks I shall start sticking some of our latest results on these pages, as thankfully we got another paper accepted on soft tissue preservation today...hurrah! Each paper published in a journal is a big step forward for our group, given the techniques we use are quite new to the field of palaeontology, making the review process long in some circumstances. With this in mind, I thought I might dare drag one and all into the fun world of methods, machinery and chemistry that orbits on planet organic...I might even drag vital life processes into the debate, such as help ease the transition into this tricky field. More importantly, you will soon see that fossils are organic mines that we are only just learning how to excavate. I would never have believed that when I was a 7 year old plucking my first fossil from the ground, that I would one day be as interested in the chemistry of the said lump.

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