In April 2007, the Dutch scientist Jaap Sinninghe Damst was presented with the prestigious Vernadsky Medal at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly. Sinninghe Damst, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research NIOZ, was awarded this medal for his cutting edge work in the field of biogeochemistry.
"It's an honour to win this prize because it is recognition of my science and that it has a certain impact," said Sinninghe Damst.
Using biomarkers to predict climate change
Sinninghe Damst received the Vernadsky Medal for his innovative use of biomarkers. Biomarkers are organic compounds found in sediments. With these it is possible to trace back life to its origin. These biomarkers are a kind of organic fossil and unlike normal fossils which only show higher organisms, like dinosaurs, these organic fossils show chemical remains of microbial life like algae, bacteria and archaea. "This really opens new perspectives on all kinds of things. The nice thing about these molecules is that they don't only give the information that a certain organism was present but also about past climatic conditions," said Sinninghe Damst.
Many of the biomarker compounds come from the membranes of organisms. Because these organisms adjust their membrane compounds according to certain external conditions, it is possible to track a preserved signal in the sediment and learn about the evolution of the organism and even the surrounding environment. The data can then be used to track climate variation going back to at least 100 Million years, a time with much higher CO2 levels. This information could then be used as a model for what we are facing in the future. Understanding the past can help us understand the future.
"We can now look at how warm it was during for example the Cretaceous period which can give indication for climate modelling," said Sinninghe Damst.