Rick Keil ~ Citizens' Scientist


Many processes of past life are recorded as signals in sediments at the bottom of lakes and the ocean. Paleo-oceanographers take those signals and reconstruct conditions of the past. However, parts of those signals are erased - just like scratches on a dirty CD will erase part of the song. Rick's lab is attempting to reconstruct the largest assemblage of information as they can, information that is then handed off to paleo-oceanographers so that they can read the record. "Our approach places us squarely at the center of two rapidly growing areas of research - microbial ecology and carbon cycling," says Rick.

"In general you can think of our lab as the group of people who fix scratches on a CD."
Rick's lab does do some "reading of the record" as well. They study a suite of compounds called lignins, which are found in every plant, using this information to reconstruct how an entire region has changed over time. The analysis used to study lignins is similar to the analysis used to examine other compounds found in seawater - such as cooking spices. "Our ability to measure lignin translates really well to our ability to measure cooking spices, pollutants, chlorinated phenols," says Rick. [Listen to Rick talk about environmental spices on NPR.]

Another area of exploration is in reconstructive marine proteomics - extracting protein signals then reconstructing the ecology of an environment. "We would like to find proteins in the sediment record so that we can reconstruct the ecology or function of an organism that might not have left some other record," says Rick. "We want to use proteins to interpret the past of organisms that don't leave behind a shell but only leave behind an organic marker."

In order to understand the signal in the mud, it's important to understand how the signal got there. "We put out large 'garbage cans' that collect falling dead stuff, collect it and interrogate it," says Rick. "Our core research is trapping fecal material, interrogating it for lignins (its terrestrial sources), and proteins (its marine sources), then using that information to reconstruct the sound of life recoded in the sediments." All of which is complementary to the lab's local research and SoundCitizen work.

Funded Research Projects