Biomarker evidence for human impacts in past environments

This UROP placement will investigate the application of detecting organic biomarkers directly from human waste products in environment. This could lead to accurate a better understanding of where and when humans were in landscapes in the past and be able to tie climate records and human occupations of remote landscapes together for the first time.

Department: Geography & Environmental Science

Supervised by: Dr Stuart Black

The Placement Project

Coprosanols are the degradation products of cholesterol in the guts of higher order animals including humans. The production of sterols, including coprostanols are related to the defecation of faecal material by humans and thus detection of coprostanols from human-derived cholesterol is a direct marker of human activity. Coprostanols are a large organic molecule (5ß-cholestan-3ß-ol) that is insoluble in water, and hence these molecules are robust in the environment and can be preserved for centuries intact. As the coprostanol molecule has a hydroxyl (-OH) group attached, it is only broken down in high alkali environments (marine, salt marshes etc) and so acidic, organic accumulations are ideal to preserve these molecules. The analysis of upland and lowland peat and lake accumulations for past climate activity is well established, but placing humans in these remote landscapes is often difficult. One particular problem is identifying the nature of deforestation and hunting and the impacts that humans have made on these activities, even though they may be detectable is pollen and animal records. By analysing coprostanol accumulations alongside these other markers such as pollen to detect climate and vegetation changes, we can for the first time, directly link remote, rural landscape impacts directly (or not) to human activity. The placement will analyse upland and lowland organic lake and peat cores for coprostanols and compare these to already analysed vegetation and climate records to assess the human impact on key events of the past.


1. To identify the appropriate core material archived in SAGES for extraction of coprostanols and the appropriate period of time. 2. To analyse the core material for coprostanols at high and low resolution to test the methodology for both environmental and analytical sensitivity. 3. To produce a methodological approach for analysing coprostanols in sediments in the form of a standard operating procedure (SOP). 4. To produce a summary report on the potential of the methodology for analysing the impact of humans in the environment. 5. To produce a video blog (vlog) during the whole process of the UROP for editing and upload to the web.

Skills, knowledge and experience required

This placement would suit a student with a background in scientific archaeology, geography, geochemistry (chemistry), environmental science, ecology or related discipline, and with an interest in climate change and/or human impacts of climate change. Prior experience of geochemical analysis would be beneficial but is not essential, as all training will be provided during the UROP.

Skills which will be developed during the placement

The student will enhance their laboratory and research skills in a number of different ways, including: • Experience of the integration of climate change data and environmental markers together with the new coprostanol data. This compilation of data will be a highly transferable skill set for the future. • Interaction and experience of dealing with experienced researchers and core material from different locations (South America, Italy, UK etc) will be valuable experience for the student. • Experience of a range of laboratory facilities and techniques associated with of coprostanols within SAGES and CAF will give the student vital experience of a range of facilities that they have not previously come across. • Experience of the interpretation and implementation of geochemical, isotopic and pollen data together with the new coprostanol data. • Experience of using statistical software for interpretation of the data (Mintab) • Production of data and text that will lead to a publication for which the student will be a contributing author; • Improvement of time management in the laboratory by taking responsibility for sample analyses and quality control, scheduling analyses and managing scientific data; • Experience of reporting of scientific data to publication standard. • Video blogging and editing techniques

Place of Work

Based in the laboratory facilities in the Wager Building, SAGES and analytical facility in CAF (Chemistry)

Hours of Work

37 per week

Approximate Start and End Dates (not fixed)

Monday 18 June 2018 - Friday 27 July 2018

How to Apply

The post will be advertised until Friday 20th April. The applicant should provide a detailed CV and covering letter, stating their reasons for applying and their aspirations for future career development, to the Project Supervisor (click on supervisor name at the top of the page for email).

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