The Organic Geochemistry Unit’s ‘Mission to the Moon’

Y’all! A blog adapted from my 19 July 2019, 50th anniversary twitter thread about the Apoll0 11 #Apollo50th lunar samples and the search for life. Adapted from a presentation by @ogu_bristol founder Geoff Eglinton, who led the search for biomolecules. The team included him, James Maxwell, Colin Pillinger, John Hayes and others, titans of the organic geochemistry field. University of Bristol press release here:  (…)

Today, the @ogu_bristol studies archaeology, past climate, the Earth system, environmental pollution, astrobiology and the evolution of life. We are all proud to build on the legacy of Geoff and James, shared between @UoBEarthScience and @BristolChem (…)

Geoff’s involvement dated back to 1967 when @NASA first commissioned proposals for analyses of the rocks! (Geoff – like all of us – also smelled an opportunity for investment in fantastic new kit!)

Slide from one of Geoff’s iconic presentations

This was exciting news in Bristol – but the @bristollive (Bristol Post) headline rather captured the gender stereotypes of the day. As we know, there were many hidden figures at NASA. And although the OGU was mostly men in 1969, women were a critcal part of the group.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills’ JFK, 1962. A thrilling statement of scientific intent.

Everyone had their own role to play in the post-mission effort do derive as much scientific value as possible from this great human endeavour. This is Geoff’s list of the ‘Big Questions’:

Images of the launch…

… and some of Geoff’s favourite images from the mission. All courtesy of @NASA

The Rocks Arriving at NASA! They had to be quarantined for three weeks in the Lunar Receiving Lab to ensure they were not contaminated with extraterrestrial life, radiation, toxins.

And then processed via different labs for different analyses, partitioning, etc. This flow chart looks SO simple, given what we have all personally experienced in distributing far less precious samples!

Love these photos.

This discussion over how to process some of the most valuable samples in the history of humanity just looks too damn chill.  I’ve seen scientists nearly come to blows over how to partition a marine sediment core!

Bristol newspapers took this seriously: “The Four Just Men of Bristol.” The rocks arrived in Bristol on 23 Oct 1969, an event that we celebrated with a talk by James Maxwell and a fantastic introduction by Colin Pillinger’s wife, Judy.

Sidebar: (John Hayes was Kate Freeman’s PhD supervisor; and she was mine. The legacy of this mission and the analytical techniques that spun out of it is vast. And now I co-lead this same group. This is humbling.)

This is James Maxwell and Colin Pillinger transferring the moon dust. I never had the privilege of working with Colin, but James, Geoff and John are titans in the field from whom I had the privilege to learn.

This is it. This is what we got.

The most precious samples in the history of humanity. Looking for trace quantities. That could change how we perceived our place in the cosmos. No pressure.

What. Did. They. Find?? The @ogu_bristol had two scientific goals. The first, as we are organic geochemists), was looking for molecular evidence for life.


They found none. Despite at least some pop culture suggestions to the contrary!

Including our own Bristol pop culture, right @aardman?

One of my fondest memories of Geoff was Richard Evershed asking him at the end of the seminar ‘Did you expect to find any evidence?’

Geoff: ‘Ha ha ha ha… No.”

Another newspaper article reporting the findings. The press back then was really keen on making sure we knew what gender these scientists were….

But they did make fascinating discoveries! They found traces of methane embedded in the lunar soil. This important organic compound could be formed in minerals by solar wind bombardment of the surface with carbon & hydrogen. But lunar surface is also bombarded by micrometeorites

So which was the correct mechanism? Geoff’s explanation in his own words/slides and drawings!

And the inevitable @nature paper!  (It turns out that it is more complicated than that.  It is partially contamination and partially carbon chemistry on the lunar surface)

The adventure did not end there. They continued analysing samples from not only the Apollo missions but also the Soviet Luna missions.

Colin Pillinger went on to pioneer UK space science for the next three decades. And the scientists and methods thrived as the foundation for a multitude of disciplines here on Earth, from chemical archaeology to climate reconstruction to tracing pollution in the environment. And the legacy thrives through over 1000 scientists – undergraduates, PhD students, post-docs, visitors, and users of the Bristol node of @isotopesUK.

Many debate the cost and priority of space science and exploration, compared to tackling real world problems. That might seem especially true now as we grapple with the immediate challenge of Covid-19 and the long-term challenge of climate change. And I agree with that, especially when exploration becomes a vanity project rather than a shared and collective intellectual endeavour. But when done right, it brings out our very best, with inevitable and profound benefits for all of society. It ensures we retain our ambitions. It ensures we remember what we can achieve together. And it creates a legacy of knowledge, innovation and scholars #Apollo50th

The Weirdness of Biomolecules in the Geological Record

In the 1930s, Alfred E. Treibs characterised the structure of metalloporphyrins in rocks and oil, revealing their similarities to and ultimately proving their origin from chlorophyll molecules in plants.  From that the field of biomarker geochemistry was born, a discipline based on reconstructing Earth’s history using the molecular fossils of the organisms that once lived in those ancient lakes, soils and oceans.

Most biomarkers are lipids – or fats – although there are exceptions such as the porphyrins. Lipids are ideal biomarkers because they have marvelous structural variability, recording in their own way the tree of life and the adaptation of that life to the environments in which they live(d). And they are also ideal, because they are preserved, in sediments for thousands of years and in rocks for millions, often hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years.

The classical way in which we use these biomarkers is to exploit those subtle structural changes as a record of environmental conditions – using the number of rings or branches or double bonds as a microbiological record of ancient temperatures or pH. We also use them to identify the sources of organic matter to ancient settings, helping us to characterise an ancient lake or sea or documenting the biotic response to a mass extinction.

They can even record the evolution of life. The rise and diversification of eukaryotes, the Palaeozoic colonisation of land by plants, the Cretaceous emergence of the angiosperms, the Mesozoic rise of red algae and the Cenozoic rise of certain coccolithophorids are all documented in the molecular record.

But that record also documents moments of profound weirdness in ancient oceans, transient events in which some ancient organism appeared, dominated the seas and thus the sedimentary record, and then disappeared, taking with them a suite of biosynthetic machinery.

The Jurassic Ocean

Take for example, the ancient Kimmeridge Sea, which covered much of the UK during the Jurassic about 155 million years ago and within which many North Sea oils were deposited as well as the magnificent sedimentary sequences of Kimmeridge Bay.

A core cutting from Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation, collected from the @NERCscience-funded Kimmeridge Drilling Project. The slight colour changes reflect changes in lithology, with darker colours reflecting more organic-rich horizons.


The Blackstone, oil shale, east of Clavell's Hard, Kimmeridge, Dorset
Ian West has some great photos and descriptions of Kimmeridge Bay black shales at

Within the archived sediments of this ancient basin, we observe many of the biomarkers for common life that we’d find in any sediment from the past 600 million years: eukaryotic-derived steranes (from sterols, such as cholesterol, which occur in every plant and animal) and bacterially-derived hopanes (from compounds similar to sterols but present only in Bacteria).  But we also find very odd compounds, unusually-branched linear isoprenoids.  The isoprenoids, compounds constructed of the five-carbon atom unit isoprene, are not odd; in fact, steranes and hopanes are just linear isoprenoids folded into rings, and the membrane lipids of the third domain of life, the Archaea, predominantly comprise linear isoprenoids. More on them below.

But the isoprenoids from some sedimentary horizons deposited in the ancient Kimmeridge Sea have extra branches or missing branches, revealing an assembly from smaller molecules in a manner unlike any organism on Earth today.

A gas chromatogram from the KCF (you can view this like a bar chart – each peak is a compound and its area reflects its concentration). It shows the distribution of the unusual isoprenoids (letters and letter combinations), which in some parts of the KCF such as this particular sample dominate the entire assemblage.

In those horizons, they eclipse all other biomarkers in abundance, indicating that these ancient organisms did not just persist at the fringes of life, an idiosyncrasy in a complex ecosystem, but were one of the dominant organisms.

And then they disappeared, taking these peculiar lipids with them.

An Archaeal Event in the Cretaceous

Deep in the Cretaceous, near the boundary between the Aptian and Albian Ages, about 110 million years ago, organic-rich sediments were deposited across the North Atlantic Ocean.  The event is called Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE) 1b. Such events are not uncommon, especially in the Cretaceous when combinations of algal blooms, restriction of ocean circulation and depletion of deep ocean oxygen facilitated the burial of the organic matter (that in many cases became the oil and gas that fuels the Anthropocene). But unlike earlier and later organic burial events, this event was not an algal event; it was not a plant event.

This was an Archaea event.

Archaea are ubiquitous on the planet, but rarely do they dominate, instead ceding the modern Earth to the plants and Bacteria. Their hardy physiology allows them to dominate in very high temperature geothermal settings and they are uniquely adapted to a handful of ecosystems. Some Archaea, those involved with the oxidation of ammonia, also appear to dominate in parts of the ocean, but only in scarce abundances, representing a significant proportion of the biomass only because other organisms find it even more challenging to eke out an existence in that sunlight-starved realm.

But 110 million years ago not only did they dominate, they dominated in a way that led to the deposition of thick layers of archaea-derived organic matter on the seafloor.  We know this because nearly all of the organic matter – analysed through the lens of multiple analytical techniques probing the various pools of sedimentary organic matter, with names like bitumen and kerogen, maltenes an asphaltenes, saturates, aromatics and polars – are all dominated by compounds diagnostic for the Archaea.

Amorphous organic matter from OAE1b – structureless with no evidence of plant or algal cell walls. In many ways, this is a mundane image, similar to much organic matter in sediments, and keeping the secrets of its origin to itself. But its chemical composition is less opaque, revealing its unique archaeal origin.

But OAE1b was evidently not merely a brief explosion of the same Archaea that thrived at much lower abundances prior to and after it, and thrive at low abundances even today. No, this event included Archaea that biosynthesised subtle variations of classical Archaeal lipids, variations restricted -as far as we know – to this single event in all of Earth history.

A library of compounds found in OAE1b sediments. The archaeal isoprenoids I-V and XI to XIV dominate. And in the kerogen, similar fragments (XVII and beyond) dominate, indicating that the archaea dominate the production of all OM. But of all of these compound I is particularly unique, similar to the others but apparently confined to this one event in all of Earth history.

Compound I from the figure above might not look that special; it takes a keen eye to distinguish it from Compound II below it.  But like the unusual lipids of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, it is apparently restricted to (and abundant during) only this one event.


These are weird biomarkers and that is why we love them. They prompt us to ponder the organisms that made them – and how and why?  And this prompts further questions that are perhaps more fascinating and profound, and not just the interest of organic geochemists.

Why have no other organisms chosen to make them?  Are these lipid simply an accident of phylogeny? Or are these a specific adaptation to the environmental and ecological needs of a particular moment in time, in a particular ocean basin? And that is both enigmatic and beautiful.  It speaks to the rapid emergence and then the casual discarding of a biosynthetic pathway and the associated enzymatic machinery.

And surely that must say something of the organisms that have produced them. Because these weird and unique biomarkers also reveal the expansion and disappearance of the microorganisms that made them, organisms comprising not just a truncated branch on the tree of life but a branch that what was, for a brief while, thick and thriving.  And now gone.


But as fascinating as these microbiological events are I am even more curious about those that we have we missed? Most life does not make such weird and singular lipids, relying on similar biomolecular solutions to similar ecological needs. Consequently, I suspect that there are many cryptic microbiological evolutionary events, invisible to the molecular fossil record. And by extension, are these simple organisms – the single-celled bacteria, archaea and microalgae – as primitive and eternal as we assume?  Or is Earth history replete with exotic microbiological events – a multitude of failed experiments or singular innovations appropriate only for a moment in time – and then rendered invisible even to organic geochemists because they have not been signposted by a peculiar lipid?

The Origin of the Uncertain World Art

Everyone, gather round! I want to tell you how the marvelous @LucasAntics Park Row artwork came to pass!
In 2014, Bristol was preparing to be the European Green Capital in 2015. Many great projects were envisioned, including collaborations with Bristol’s outstanding artists, like @lukejerram who created Withdrawn: and many curated by @FestivalofIdeas.
It had been about 50 years since the publication of J.G. Ballard’s iconic disaster novels, The Drowned World, The Burning World and my favourite, the surreal and biologically disturbing The Crystal World. Consequently, ideas were brainstormed around these.Image
These did not happen. That was probably for the best as no matter how brilliant and perceptive Ballard is, these novels have a very white, male, colonial perspective. Not ideal for our diverse city. But it simulated conversations. As @cabotinstitute Director, I was asked: “What will be the nature of our future world, under climate change?” And my answer was ‘An Uncertain World.’ We can predict warming & rainfall, but we are creating a world beyond all human experience. This was informed by our work on past climates. It has been about 3 million years since the Earth last had so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. And the rate of increase is nearly unprecedented in Earth history. For more on these, see other Uncertain World blog pages:……

Reconstruction of climate over the past 60 million years. The d18O values show the long-term cooling of the Earth, compared to the lower figure showing the similar long-term decline of PCO2 to levels of 270 ppm… Before the Anthropocene increase to 417 ppm.

And hence the Uncertain World.

And to visualise that, we thought it would be fascinating to juxtapose our city – specifically St Werburgh’s – with it’s ancient Mesozoic past. Flooded and thriving with plesiosaurs, ammonites and icthyosaurs. And who better than @LucasAntics?Image

And so Alex created these! Thanks to @ERC_Research and @NERCscience for helping to fund it!Image
And we all loved them so much, that we got permission to paint them on the side of the @BristolUni Drama Building!

Learn more about Alex’s great work at her website: Visit. It. Now. And be filled with joy.

To read about what we learned about the challenges of living with Uncertainty, more relevant now than ever, go here:… 

Fun fact: @DrHeatherBuss and I have all of the original artwork in our house! Including these drawings of a soon to be flooded St Werburgh’s. Views toward St Werburgh’s City Farm and Graffiti Tunnel!

AND…. all* of the original drawings of the menagerie of critters, not all of whom made it into the art!

*All but one that we gave away to a young fan of Mary Anning!Image

Thank you for listening. I thank Alex and others for inspiring me to use some quirkiness, wonder and silliness as a gateway to the very serious conversations we must have about climate change and biodiversity loss. 💚 

Postscript: The Green Capital Year was amazing. I loved it our collaborations with artists, engaged citizen movements and innovators. But it was not as inclusive as it should have been. And from that lesson arose the Green and Black Ambassadors!


Eradicating Inequity is How We Will Thrive in an Uncertain World

To thrive or even survive in our Uncertain World requires creativity, empowerment and collaboration – but most of all equity. We learned this in developing Bristol’s Resilience Strategy and is strikingly evident now as we grapple with global pandemic.


In Bristol, a Plesiosaur and other prehistoric creatures cavort on the weathered side of an Edwardian building, the wall flooded with blue, the animals hovering over the traffic-crowded roads.  In the corner of the artwork by Alex Lucas are the words ‘The Uncertain World’ in a font torn from a 60s disaster novel. The prehistoric creatures, from a time when the world was hotter, sea levels higher and the life much different, have been juxtaposed with modern buildings and cars and are meant to be a starting point for conversations about climate change, our past and our future.

It was painted in 2015, when Bristol was the European Green Capital and a focus for dialogue co-curated by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, which had long sought to build diverse communities to understand ‘Living with Uncertainty.’

The Uncertain World mural at the University of Bristol, Painted by Alex Lucas and Sponsored by The Cabot Institute for the Environment

An Uncertain World is an apt description for today, as we face not only the long-term chronic uncertainty of climate change and wider environmental degradation but the acute uncertainty of a global pandemic and economic chaos.

But the issues and maybe the solutions – as many have already noted – are remarkably similar.

From Coronavirus we will learn what we are capable of to stop a global disaster. We will rethink what we are capable of achieving – as individuals, businesses, communities and nations.

We can also learn how to live with the challenging uncertainty that will come with even modest climate change.

In 2015, we aspired to use past climate research to create a more reflective consideration of action, resilience and adaptation. Such research explores the climate and life associated with ancient hot climates, potential analogues for our future. Those long-ancient climates contribute to our understanding of an uncertain future by reinforcing what we do know: when CO2 goes up, so does temperature.

It also shows the limitations of our own personal experiences and understanding.  It reveals, for example, that that pCO2 levels have not exceeded 400ppm for ~3 million years; that the current rate of climate change is nearly without precedent; and that ancient rapid warming has dramatic but complex consequences.

In short, it shows us just how unprecedented the world we are creating is.

But perhaps most importantly, it provides for us the otherwise absent personal and societal narratives of climate change.  None of us have experienced this Uncertain World.  Nor has our civilisation. Not even our species. Therefore, the geological past creates a space for considering what unprecedented really means, for considering living with not a statistical uncertainty but a deep uncertainty, an uncertainty that is not informed by our individual, familial, societal or even civilisation experiences.

So perhaps it is not surprising that our conversations entirely predicted the debates we are now having daily about how to address the Covid-19 emergency, and in particular the lack of consensus about how to act when we have no shared experience on which to draw.

Unlike the current passionate debate about pandemic (and climate) action, however, the Uncertain World also allowed us to relocate discussion away from modern divisive politics to the ancient past and unknown futures, thereby creating a place of reflection. Through this, we collaboratively explored what we know or do not about our past and future, renewing motivation for climate action. But perhaps most importantly, by focusing on the uncertainty in the Earth system, we explored the creative forms of resilience that will be required in the coming century (Cabot Institute Report on Living with Environmental Uncertainty.pdf).  And all of this contributed to the creation of Bristol’s Resilience Strategy (Bristol Resilience Strategy-2n5wmn3) and then its One City Plan.

And the findings from those discussions are identical to what we are learning today: equity must be at the centre of any society that hopes to withstand the shocks of uncertainty.

In our conversations, we as a City identified five principles that must shape our resilience. Society must be liveable, agile, sustainable and connected. And most of all, fair.  Although we might choose different words in the fire of a pandemic, the principles are fundamentally the same as those we debate right now. Of course, we aspire to live – and not just to live but to enjoy life and have a high quality of life.  But to do so, we must live and act sustainably and within the means of ourselves, our families, our society and our planet. The Covd-19 crisis is acutely showing what we really value to enjoy life, the differences between what we think we need and what we really need; and in doing so, it is showing us new pathways to sustainability.

To thrive in an uncertain world, we must also be agile. And that means that we must be flexible and creative and have the power to act on those creative impulses and innovative ideas. Some agility can come from centralised government and sometimes it must, such as the decisions to close some businesses and financially support their vulnerable employees; build new hospitals; and repurpose factories to make ventilators. However, the agility that is often the most effective for dealing with the specifics of a crisis arise from our communities and individuals. That requires a benevolent sharing of power – not just political but economic. Communities need the resources to decide how to manage floods and food shortages locally – and the decision-making political power to act on those. Likewise, we need the power and resources to support our vulnerable neighbours during a pandemic, and to support the local businesses and their employees struggling to survive an economic shutdown.

The counterpoint to agility – of an individual, community or nation – is connectivity. We cannot adapt and thrive and survive on our own. The individual who builds a fortress will soon run out of food. Or medicine. Or entertainment. The nation that disconnects from others will find itself in bidding wars for ventilators and vaccines. And perhaps eventually resources and food,

Inevitably though, every single resilience or adaptation or preparedness conversation leads to fairness; to equity and inclusion. The wealthy have power, agency and agility.  The wealthy have the means to build a fortress while remaining connected. The wealthy can stockpile food. They can hire equipment to build flood walls around their estates. They can flee famines and cross borders.

They can flee pandemic.

They can choose how they work. Or whether to work.

They can access virus tests long before the rest of us.

The bitter irony is that we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis what we always knew: that those who are often the least respected, the least paid, the most vulnerable are the most essential.  They are the ones who harvest our food and get it to our stores and homes. They work the front lines of the health services. They are the ones who keep the electricity and water operating. And the internet that allows University Professors to work while self-isolating.

And the poorest in our societies will die because of it.

The same will be true of the looming climate change disaster – but more slowly and likely far worse. It will come first through heat waves that in some parts of the world make it impossible to work; through extreme climate events that devastate especially the most vulnerable infrastructure. And then it will devastate food production and global food supply chains. It will displace millions, at least tens of millions due to (the most optimistic estimates) of sea level rise alone, and then potentially hundreds of millions more due to drought and famine.

Who will suffer?  Those who must labour in the outdoor heat of fields and cities. Those who are already suffering food poverty.  Those who cannot flee across increasingly rigid borders from a rising sea or a famine. Climate change is classist and it is racist. It is genocide by indifference.

And unlike a pandemic, the wealthy cannot simply wait out climate change. They will either succumb to the same crumbling structures as the rest of us; or they will be forced to entrench their power via ever more extreme means. There is a reason why nearly every dystopian story is ultimately a story about class struggle.

But we can address that if we are learn the lessons of today and elevate the values of equity and community that make us stronger together. And if we build societies that embody those values – societies that recognise that prosperity is not a zero sum game. We can horde or we can share food on a world where less is produced.  We can leave everyone to themselves or guarantee people a home and an income. We can put up walls or tear them down.  We can sink boats carrying refugees or we can build them. Coronavirus has exposed the inequities in our society, but it has also shown that we can end them if the desire is great enough. And in that, there is hope.

A resilient world, a strong world, a world that will survive this pandemic and that will survive the coming climate catastrophes must more than anything be an equitable world. There is no reason for it not to be.