Mud, mud glorious mud . . . and money

June 16, 1995

Scientists at Plymouth University have found that where there's mud, there's research money.

A project which aims to identify chemicals produced by a rare form of algae present in underwater mud has attracted an award from the Government-backed "Realising Our Potential" scheme.

The chemicals are all new to science, and Steve Rowland, head of Plymouth University's petroleum and environmental geochemistry group, believes they could help explain climatic changes that took place millions of years ago and provide vital information about the conditions needed to produce oil.

Several of the chemicals have been taken from the bottom of oceans and lakes around the world over the past ten years, but until recently scientists were unsure how they got there.

Australian researchers had spotted the same compounds in a rare form of algae, but a small culture of it died before a complete chemical identification could be carried out.

Then Plymouth's research team discovered that biologists at Nantes University in France had grown large cultures of the algae, because of its ability to turn oysters green, doubling their value.

"This bulk source of the new chemicals will enable my colleagues Simon Belt, David Cooke, and myself to start identifying the compounds fully," Rowland said.

"We have evidence to suggest that the production of the compounds by the algae depends on environmental conditions, such as temperature and salinity. By examining distributions of the compounds in muds we may be able to calculate the temperature or salinity of the environment in the past. This may be useful for deciding what kind of sedimentary environment is needed to produce oil."

The "Realising Our Potential" award of Pounds 82,000 backing the project is to be paid through the Natural Environment Research Council.

The Plymouth research group is part of a European consortium, jointly awarded more than Pounds 1 million to study aspects of life on the ocean bed.

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