The powerful X-ray microscope has revealed narrow nanoscale bands in the plankton shell where the amount of magnesium is very slightly higher, at length scales as small as one hundredth that of a human hair. They are growth bands, rather like tree rings, but in plankton the bands occur daily or so, rather than yearly.
"These growth bands in plankton show the day by day variations in magnesium in the shell at a 30 nanometre length scale. For slow-growing plankton it opens the way to seeing seasonal variations in ocean temperatures or plankton growth in samples dating back tens to hundreds of millions of years", says Professor Simon Redfern, one of the experimenters on the project.
"Our X-ray data show that the trace magnesium sits inside the crystalline mineral structure of the plankton shell. That's important because it validates previous assumptions about using magnesium contents as a measure of past ocean temperature."
The chemical environment of the trace elements in the plankton shell, revealed in the new measurements, shows that the magnesium sits in calcite crystal replacing calcium, rather than in microbial membranes in their impurities in the shell. This helps explain why temperature affects the chemistry of plankton shells - warmer waters favour increased magnesium in calcite.
The group are now using the UK's "Diamond" synchrotron X-ray facility to measure how plankton shells grow and whether they change at all in the ocean floor sediments. Their latest results could allow scientists to establish climate variability in Earth's far distant past, as well as providing new routes to measure ocean acidification and salinity in past oceans.
|Contact: Simon Redfern|
University of Cambridge