Biomarker Approaches for Reconstructing Terrestrial Environmental Change

Gordon N. Inglis, Tripti Bhattacharya, Jordon D. Hemingway, Emily H. Hollingsworth, Sarah J. Feakins, Jessica E. Tierney

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


The response of the terrestrial biosphere to warming remains one of the most poorly understood and quantified aspects of the climate system. One way to test the behavior of the Earth system in warm climate states is to examine the geological record. The abundance, distribution, and/or isotopic composition of source-specific organic molecules (biomarkers) have been used to reconstruct terrestrial paleoenvironmental change over a range of geological timescales. Here, we review new or recently improved biomarker approaches for reconstructing (a) physical climate variables (land temperature, rainfall), (b) ecosystem state variables (vegetation, fire regime), and (c) biogeochemical variables (soil residence time, methane cycling). This review encompasses a range of key compound classes (e.g., lipids, lignin, and carbohydrates). In each section, we explore the concept behind key biomarker approaches and discuss their successesas paleoenvironmental indicators. We emphasize that analyzing several biomarkers in tandem can provide unique insights into the Earth system. ▪ Biomarkers can be used to reconstruct terrestrial environmental change over a range of geological timescales. ▪ A multi-proxy biomarker approach provides novel insights into climate and the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)369-394
Number of pages26
JournalAnnual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences
StatePublished - May 31 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
G.N.I. is supported by a Global Challenges Research Fund Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship (DHF\R1\191178). T.B. is supported by National Science Foundation Paleo Perspectives on Climate Change grant OCE 1903148. S.J.F. is supported by NSF-OPP-1908548. We thank Kate Freeman and one anonymous reviewer whose constructive feedback improved this review. We are grateful to the organic geochemical community whose innovative work inspired this review.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.


  • biogeochemistry
  • biomarkers
  • lipids
  • paleoclimate
  • paleoenvironment
  • proxies


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