Toxic to aliens -- but key to health of planet

June 18, 2008

Scientists at the University of Leicester are using an ingredient found in common shampoos to investigate how the oxygen content of the oceans has changed over geologically recent time.

The same ingredient, which was also used to fight off alien invaders in the film "Evolution", is a widely available dietary supplement used by many people.

The ingredient, selenium, is an anti-oxidant and an essential trace nutrient in our diet. It belongs to a group of elements whose behaviour is controlled by the concentration of oxygen in the environment.

This study represents a first attempt by scientists to use selenium in this way and is part of research student, Andrew Shore's, PhD project. It involves measuring the isotopic ratios of selenium in sediments.

One possible outcome of the project is that the results could give scientists a global picture of the changing oxygen content of the oceans through time. Previous studies have tended to focus on local variations in ocean oxygen content.

The oxygen content of oceans can also be used as an indicator of the "overall health" of the oceans. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states changes in fish populations are "associated with changes in oceanic oxygen levels." Therefore an understanding of oxygen in the oceans is not only important for the past but also for the future.

"We are using samples from an ocean basin off the Venezuelan coast which previous studies have shown to have changed its oxygen content over the last 500,000 years," explained Andrew.

Without oxygen living things suffocate. Six hundred million years ago, the only life that could survive was tiny single-celled organisms. Then suddenly 540 million years ago complex life began to thrive, possibly as the "miracle molecule", oxygen, became abundant on Earth.

Andrew added: "Our understanding of the changes in atmospheric oxygen is good, but our planet is 70% covered by oceans. Determining the oceanic oxygen content is very difficult - it is linked to the atmosphere, plankton growth, and ocean circulation patterns."

Source: University of Leicester

Explore further: The cosmic water trail uncovered by Herschel

Related Stories

The cosmic water trail uncovered by Herschel

September 19, 2017

During almost four years of observing the cosmos, the Herschel Space Observatory traced out the presence of water. With its unprecedented sensitivity and spectral resolution at key wavelengths, Herschel revealed this crucial ...

AWI's underwater robot Tramper successfully recovered

September 1, 2017

On 27 August 2017, deep-sea researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) recovered the underwater robot Tramper, which had been taking measurements at a depth of 2435 ...

Aerial drones deliver sweet spot for HAB research at VIMS

September 5, 2017

Harmful algal blooms or HABs are notoriously difficult to sample. They can appear abruptly when growing conditions are right, and disappear just as quickly when conditions deteriorate. They also shift with tides and currents, ...

Recommended for you

Diamonds show Earth still capable of 'superhot' surprises

September 22, 2017

Diamonds may be 'forever,' but some may have formed more recently than geologists thought. A study of 26 diamonds, formed under extreme melting conditions in the Earth's mantle, found two populations, one of which has geologically ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.