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Mag Lab Scientist Provides A Colorful Look at the Past

Amy McKenna hard at work in the laboratory.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Have you ever wondered what the world actually looked like a billion years ago? A Capital City scientist has helped discover at least a partial answer to that question and that finding has made her an overnight media sensation worldwide.

Amy McKenna hard at work in the laboratory.
The Florida Channel
Amy McKenna hard at work in the laboratory.

Amy McKenna is a chemist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee. She also has a deep, dark secret. Amy McKenna is a porphyrin junkie.

“We’ve seen these compounds in oil samples for the past 20 years. And I fell in love with this class of compounds back in 2009 and they’re very interesting. They’re a compound in petroleum that are not degraded, so they are molecular fossils,” McKenna explained.

As a lead researcher on the chemistry of the millions of barrels of crude oil that poured into the Gulf of Mexico from 2010’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, McKenna has seen LOTS of porphyrins. She was even tapped to give a talk on the subject at a scientific conference in New Hampshire. It was there that met a kindred spirit.

“A girl in the audience came up to me after my talk and she was like, ‘I’m a porphyrin junkie, too! I really loved your talk. I have this really cool sample. It’s a billion years old. We know there are porphyrins in there. Can we work together?”

That girl was Nur Gueneli, a paleobiochemist at Australia National University and the sample of ancient marine shales she had came from West Africa. McKenna said the sample essentially provided a view back in time.

“These compounds are the skeletons of the animals that were there a billion years ago and that’s 500 million years older than anything that they had to date.”

McKenna and Gueneli became a research team with Gueneli ultimately visiting the Mag Lab in Tallahassee to use that facility’s ultra-advanced tools that were available no place else on earth.

“If you tried to do it on any other instrument, even another low-resolution mass spectrometer, all you’re going to see is one hump. You can’t actually see the compounds that are underneath it. So the only techniques that can do this are at the MagLab,” McKenna said.

That ability to drill down so deep into the molecular makeup, she added, allowed them to not only see the substance’s structure, but also determine its color by comparisons with its more contemporary cousins.

“These pigment molecules are the same color that we’re finding in these porphyrins, which were pink. They’re actually red, and then when you dilute them it’s pink. So you can take it to the next level that the oldest color that we know to date is pink.”

McKenna said this finding was just part of a much more comprehensive study involving Australia National University and collaborators in Japan. They actually wrapped up the work a few years ago.

“And then the paper was accepted into the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a pretty prestigious journal back at the end of May, but it was under embargo so we couldn’t talk about it. And then the moment the embargo got released, it was blowing up: CNN, The Guardian, Smithsonian…it’s pretty cool and it’s got big implications.”

Beyond Amy McKenna suddenly going from scientist to superstar, she sees this research helping push the boundaries for researchers in all kinds of disciplines.

“Everything from ecologists to oceanographers to chemical oceanographers to paleo-climatologists can now look back and say, ‘Now we have some more information and we’re pushing that time point always farther back to know how much do we really know about. And eventually one day we might actually get back to the beginning.”

But in the meantime, thanks to McKenna and company, we now know you wouldn’t need rose-colored glasses to see the world of one-point-one billion years back in a lovely shade of pink.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.