Go to the Subjects section
Go to the Research section
Go to the Staff and students section
Go to the About section
Department of Social Sciences
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
+44 (0)1865 483863
Module leader for:
The grass family (Poaceae) is one of the most economically important plant groups in the world today. In particular many major food crops, including rice, wheat, maize, rye, barley, oats and millet, are grasses that were 15 domesticated from wild progenitors during the Holocene. Archaeological evidence has provided key information on domestication pathways of different grass lineages through time and space. However, the most abundant empirical archive of floral change – the pollen record – has been underused for reconstructing grass domestication patterns, because of the challenges of classifying grass pollen grains based on their morphology alone. Here, we test the potential of a novel approach for pollen classification based on the chemical signature of the pollen grains, measured using Fourier Transform 20 infrared (FTIR) microspectroscopy. We use a dataset of eight domesticated and wild grass species, classified using k-nearest neighbour classification coupled with leave one out cross validation. We demonstrate a 95% classification success rate on training data, and an 82% classification success rate on validation data. This result shows that FTIR spectroscopy can provide enhanced taxonomic resolution enabling species level assignment from pollen. This will enable the full testing of the timing and drivers of domestication and agriculture through the Holocene.
Silicate weathering is the primary control of atmospheric CO2 concentrations on multiple timescales. However, tracing this process has proven difficult. Lithium isotopes are a promising tracer of silicate weathering. This study has reacted basalt sand with natural river water for ~9 months in closed experiments, in order to examine the behaviour of Li isotopes during weathering. Aqueous Li concentrations decrease by a factor of ~10 with time, and δ7Li increases by ~19‰, implying that Li is being taken up into secondary phases that prefer 6Li. Mass balance using various selective leaches of the exchangeable and secondary mineral fractions suggest that ~12–16% of Li is adsorbed, and the remainder is removed into neoformed secondary minerals. The exchangeable fractionation factors have a Δ7Liexch-soln = −11.6 to −11.9‰, while the secondary minerals impose Δ7Lisecmin-soln = −22.5 to −23.9‰. Overall the experiment can be modelled with a Rayleigh fractionation factor of α = 0.991, similar to that found for natural basaltic rivers. The mobility of Li relative to the carbon-cycle-critical cations of Ca and Mg changes with time, but rapidly evolves within one month to remarkably similar mobilities amongst these three elements. This evolution shows a linear relationship with δ7Li (largely due to a co-variation between aqueous [Li] and δ7Li), suggesting that Li isotopes have the potential to be used as a tracer of Ca and Mg mobility during basaltic weathering, and ultimately CO2 drawdown.
How pollen moves within and between ecosystems affects factors such as the genetic structure of populations, how resilient they are to environmental change, and the amount and nature of pollen preserved in the sedimentary record. We set artificial pollen traps in two 100 m by 100 m vegetation plots, one in a wet evergreen forest, and one in a moist semideciduous forest in Ghana, West Africa. Five traps from each plot were counted annually from 2011 to 2014, to examine spatial and temporal variation in the pollen rain of the most abundant taxa shared between pollen and vegetation assemblages. Samples from the wet evergreen plot exhibited high variability within years, with the dominant pollen types changing between samples, and many pollen taxa being over-represented relative to their parent plant abundance in some traps whilst being entirely absent from others. The most abundant plant taxa of the wet evergreen plot (Drypetes and Cynometra) do, however, constitute major components of the pollen rain. There is less variation between samples from the moist semi-deciduous plot spatially, as it is dominated by Celtis, which typically comprises >70% of the pollen assemblages. We conclude that pollen rain in these tropical ecosystems is highly heterogeneous, and suggest that pollen assemblages obtained by trapping are susceptible to small-scale variations in forest structure. Conversely, this may mean that current recommendations of more than three years of trapping in tropical systems may be too high, and that space could substitute for time in modern tropical pollen trapping.
Sporomorphs (pollen and spores) have an outer wall composed of sporopollenin. Sporopollenin chemistry contains both a signature of ambient ultraviolet-B flux and taxonomic information, but it is currently unknown how sensitive this is to standard palynological processing techniques. Oxidation in particular is known to cause physical degradation to sporomorphs, and it is expected that this should have a concordant impact on sporopollenin chemistry. Here, we test this by experimentally oxidizing Lycopodium (clubmoss) spores using two common oxidation techniques: acetolysis and nitric acid. We also carry out acetolysis on eight angiosperm (flowering plant) taxa to test the generality of our results. Using Fourier Transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, we find that acetolysis removes labile, non-fossilizable components of sporomorphs, but has a limited impact upon the chemistry of sporopollenin under normal processing durations. Nitric acid is more aggressive and does break down sporopollenin and reorganize its chemical structure, but when limited to short treatments (i.e. ≤10 min) at room temperature sporomorphs still contain most of the original chemical signal. These findings suggest that when used carefully oxidation does not adversely affect sporopollenin chemistry, and that palaeoclimatic and taxonomic signatures contained within the sporomorph wall are recoverable from standard palynological preparations.
The biopolymer sporopollenin present in the spore/pollen walls of all land plants is regarded as one of the most recalcitrant biomacromolecules (biopolymers), providing protection against a range of abiotic stresses. This long-term stability is demonstrated by the near-ubiquitous presence of pollen and spores in the fossil record with spores providing the first evidence for the colonization of the land.Here, we report for the first time chemical analyses of geologically unaltered sporopollenin from Pennsylvanian (c. 310million yr before present (MyBP)) cave deposits.Our data show that Pennsylvanian Lycophyta megaspore sporopollenin has a strong chemical resemblance to extant relatives and indicates that a co-polymer model of sporopollenin formation is the most likely configuration.Broader comparison indicates that extant sporopollenin structure is similar across widely spaced phylogenetic groups and suggests land plant sporopollenin structure has remained stable since embryophytes invaded land.
Current attempts to develop a proxy for Earth's surface ultraviolet-B (UV-B) flux focus on the organic chemistry of pollen and spores because their constituent biopolymer, sporopollenin, contains UV-B absorbing pigments whose relative abundance may respond to the ambient UV-B flux. Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) microspectroscopy provides a useful tool for rapidly determining the pigment content of spores. In this paper, we use FTIR to detect a chemical response of spore wall UV-B absorbing pigments that corresponds with levels of shade beneath the canopy of a high-latitude Swedish birch forest. A 27% reduction in UV-B flux beneath the canopy leads to a significant (p<0.05) 7.3% reduction in concentration of UV-B absorbing compounds in sporopollenin. The field data from this natural flux gradient in UV-B further support our earlier work on sporopollenin-based proxies derived from sedimentary records and herbaria collections.