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Hinrichs Lab -ZOOMecular

Read the fine print: Zooming into paleoenvironmental and biogeochemical processes through molecular imaging of biomarker distributions in sediments

Duration: November 2015 - April 2021
Funding: European Research Council (ERC)
ERC Advanced Grant (Project AdG 670115)
Principal Investigator(s): Kai-Uwe Hinrichs
Involved scientists in the Hinrichs Lab: Susanne Alfken, Marcus Elvert, Verena Heuer, Evert Kramer, Julius LippTiffany Napier, Igor Obreht, Florence Schubotz, Heidi Taubner, Jin-Xiang Wang, Jenny Wendt, Lars Wörmer
Associated scientists: Pier Luigi Buttigieg (Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie, Bremen), Thomas Felis (MARUM), Enno Schefuß (MARUM)
 Partners: Achim Brauer (GFZ Potsdam), Dirk de Beer (MPI, Bremen), Michael Böttcher (Leibniz-Institut für Ostseeforschung Warnemünde), Gerald Haug (ETH Zürich/MPI, Mainz), Thomas Laepple (AWI/MARUM, Bremerhaven), Matthias Moros (Leibniz-Institut für Ostseeforschung Warnemünde), Arndt Schimmelmann (Indiana University), Appy Sluijs (University Utrecht), Roger Summons (MIT, Cambridge)


Background and objectives

Lipid biomarkers provide unique information to disciplines such as paleoceanography, paleoecology and biogeochemistry. Factors limiting their scope include high sample demand and analytical complexity, constraining resolution of time and space to decadal and centimeter scales, respectively. However, dynamic interactions between physical, chemical and biological processes are recorded within sedimentary matrices at finer scales; lipid biomarkers could decode this sedimentary fine print if the limitations of resolution could be overcome. In a recent PNAS paper (Wörmer et al., 2014), we have demonstrated that this can be done and shown that µm-scale molecular images of paleoenvironmental and geobiological processes can be obtained directly on surfaces of cut sediment cores via laser desorption ionization coupled to mass spectrometry.

The project ZOOMecular will build on this innovation by interrogating laminated sediment archives of Late Quaternary climate change and dissecting the complex environmental and ecological responses at subannual resolution. Through analysis of spatial associations of lipid biomarkers with the sedimentary matrix, we will provide a new view of the mechanisms underlying delivery to and preservation of molecular signals in sedimentary records. ZOOMecular will seek to examine the microbial habitat niches at sedimentary interfaces that are home to globally important biogeochemical processes but that are largely known from studies of cm3-scale samples. To enable these pioneering studies, we will develop innovative analytical protocols for a suite of informative biomarkers and for the acquisition of congruent molecular and elemental maps of geological samples. ZOOMecular will unlock otherwise inaccessible information of broad geoscientific relevance; its goals go far beyond the state-of-the-art and its outcome has the potential to transform biomarker research. Such a project can be successfully realized only within a frontier research scheme as provided by the ERC.

Overarching goals

goals grafik


ZOOMecular is organized in five work packages (WP):

organization grafik

Major achievements

  • Establishing the Geobiomolecular Imaging Facility, the first such facility dedicated to geoscientific research; the project ZOOMecular supported the purchase of the MALDI-FT-ICR-MS instrument.

  • Methodological groundwork to enable the interrogation of sedimentary archives, including (i) sampling and sample preparation (Alfken et al., 2019), (ii) exploring the range of suitable target compounds that provide sufficient analytical response and constraining analytical precision (Wörmer et al., 2019), and (iii) implementing data treatment routines for generating time series data out of two-dimensional maps of molecular distributions (Alfken et al., 2019; 2020).

  • Sophisticated routines of data treatment including (i) differentiation of proxy data from sub-mm thick dark vs. light laminae to constrain seasonality, (ii) constraining decadal rates of SST change in sediments as old as 125,000 years  as well as (iii) non-targeted MSI analysis through chemoinformatic examination of the vast population of mass spectrometric signals generated by laser-desorption-ionization of sediment from the Santa Barbara Basin in relation to the instrumental record.

  • First demonstration that marine sediment records annual cycles of molecular proxy information such as sea surface temperature (Alfken et al., 2020). Depending on sediment compaction (age) and sedimentation rate, the stored information can be deciphered on monthly to quarterly resolution from suitable varved archives and thus can aid the extension of the instrumental record with detailed information on oceanographic and ecological conditions.

  • We have set the stage for tackling pressing questions in paleoenvironmental science, which in terms of temporal resolution of processes and level of detail go far beyond what has been accessible with established conventional approaches. In late Quaternary sediments, for example, these questions relate to the relationship between climate’s “heartbeat” and atmospheric and/or oceanographic and/or ecological processes (e.g., Obreht et al., 2020).


Alfken, S., Wörmer, L., Lipp, J.S., Napier, T., Elvert, M., Wendt, J., Schimmelmann, A., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2021) Disrupted coherence between upwelling strength and redox conditions reflects source water change in Santa Barbara Basin during the 20th century. Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 34, e2021PA004354.  doi:10.1029/2021PA004354

Alfken, S., Wörmer, L., Lipp, J.S., Wendt, J., Schimmelmann, A., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2020) Mechanistic insights into molecular proxies through comparison of subannually resolved sedimentary records with instrumental water column data in the Santa Barbara Basin, Southern California. Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 35, e2020PA004076.  doi: 10.1029/2020PA004076 

Alfken, S., Wörmer, L. Lipp, J.S., Wendt, J., Taubner, H., Schimmelmann, A., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2019) Micrometer scale imaging of sedimentary climate archives – sample preparation for combined elemental and lipid biomarker analysis. Organic Geochemistry, 127, 81-91.  doi:10.1016/j.orggeochem.2018.11.002 

Napier, T., Wörmer, L., Wendt, J., Lückge, A., Rohlfs, N., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2022) Sub-annual to interannual Arabian Sea upwelling, sea surface temperature, and Indian monsoon rainfall reconstructed using congruent micrometer-scale climate proxies. Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 37, e2021PA004355. doi:10.1029/2021PA004355

Obreht, I., Wörmer, L., Brauer, A., Wendt, J., Alfken, S., De Vleeschouwer, D., Elvert, M., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2020) An annually resolved record of Western European vegetation response to Younger Dryas cooling. Quaternary Science Reviews, 231, 106198.  doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106198

Wörmer, L., Gajendra, N., Schubotz, F., Matys, E.D., Evans, T.W., Summons, R.E., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2020) A micrometer‐scale snapshot on phototroph spatial distributions: mass spectrometry imaging of microbial mats in Octopus Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Geobiology, 18, 742-759.  doi: 10.1111/gbi.12411   

Wörmer, L., Wendt, J., Alfken, S., Wang, J.-X., Elvert, M., Heuer, V.B., and Hinrichs, K.-U. (2019) Towards multiproxy, ultra-high resolution molecular stratigraphy: Enabling laser-induced mass spectrometry imaging of diverse molecular biomarkers in sediments. Organic Geochemistry, 127, 136-145.  doi:10.1016/j.orggeochem.2018.11.009   

“This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 670115)”.