Through the Looking-Glass, and what Amino Acids Found There
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Analytical chemistry can take you to some strange places. For Professor Kirsty Penkman, it has taken her to the bottom of a quarry, covered in dirt, excavating sesame-seed sized fossils that allow us to work out when prehistoric creatures such as mammoths and Neanderthals roamed Europe.
By isolating the amino acids trapped within the crystal structure of fossils, we can use their predictable breakdown to date back to at least 3 million years ago. This time period is critical for understanding both climate and human evolution.
From samples of Great Barrier Reef corals, to South African ostrich eggshell and Antarctic ice cores, amino acids have helped us unravel the complexities of our past, whilst also providing insights into how organisms build their skeletons and respond to climate change. This material will form the basis of Kirsty's lecture to the Manchester Lit and Phil.
About the speaker
Kirsty Penkman is a Professor in Analytical Chemistry in the Chemistry Department at the University of York, where she develops and applies analytical chemistry to archaeological and geological questions. Working collaboratively with a wide range of disciplines, her focus is on the analysis of biomineral organics: their pathways of degradation, their methods of preservation, of detection, and how these molecules can inform us of an organism’s life and death history.
Kirsty runs the NERC-recognised amino acid dating facility, Neaar. She has been honoured by the Quaternary Research Association, Geological Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and the New York Academy of Sciences for her work.
Image credit: photo courtesy of Star Carr POSTGLACIAL archaeology project
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