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Sci Total Environ. 2019 Jul 30;694:133684. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.133684. [Epub ahead of print]

Identifying novel treeline biomarkers in lake sediments using an untargeted screening approach.

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Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada.
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Department of Geography, York University. Toronto, ON M3J 1P3, Canada.
Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada. Electronic address:


Paleolimnology uses sedimentary biomarkers as proxies to reconstruct long-term changes in environmental conditions from lake sediment cores. This work describes an untargeted metabolomics-based approach and uniquely applies it to the field of paleolimnology to identify novel sediment biomarkers to track long-term patterns in treeline dynamics. We identified new potential biomarkers across the Canadian northern Arctic, non-alpine, treeline using high-resolution accurate mass spectrometry, and pattern recognition analysis. This method was applied to 120 sediment core extracts from 14 boreal, 25 forest-tundra, and 21 tundra lakes to assess long-term fluctuations in treeline position. High resolution accurate mass spectrometry resolved many compounds from complex mixtures with low mass accuracy errors. This generated a large dataset that required metabolomics styled statistical analyses to identify potential biomarkers. In total, 29 potential biomarkers discriminated between boreal and tundra lakes. Tetrapyrrole-type phorbides and squalene derivatives dominated in boreal regions, while biohopane-type lipids were in the tundra regions. Tetrapyrroles were in both surface and subsurface sediments of boreal lakes indicating these compounds can survive long-term burial in sediments. At the ecozone level, tetrapyrroles were more abundant in boreal Taiga Shield, and Taiga Plains. Boreal plant extracts belonging to Pinaceae and Ericaceae also contained tetrapyrroles. Squalene derivatives demonstrated long-term preservation, but wider distribution than tetrapyrroles. Hopanoids were present in tundra and forest-tundra lake regions, specifically the Low Arctic and Taiga Shield, and were absent in all boreal lake sediments. Herein, we describe a method that can systematically identify new paleolimnological biomarkers. Novel biomarkers would facilitate multi-proxy paleolimnological studies and potentially lead to more accurate paleoenvironmental reconstructions.


Accurate mass spectrometry; Biomarkers; Omics; Paleolimnology; Treeline; Untargeted

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