Biomonitoring, health outcomes and provenancing studies

The chemical composition of all living organisms can be affected by their environment, and in turn can be diagnostic of the environment to which they have been exposed. These qualities allow us to use biomarkers to:

  • study exposure to potentially harmful elements, or nutrients, in humans and animals
  • study data on human and ecosystem health outcomes compared to measured environmental concentrations
  • contribute to the reconstruction of the origins and migration of people, goods, foodstuffs and animals

Changes in the composition of rocks are reflected in the composition and properties of soil and sediments formed from degradation of the rocks. There is an equivalent impact on the chemical properties of groundwater and surface waters. These chemical properties in soil, water and sediments can give rise to insufficient supply of micronutrients, or excess supply of potentially harmful elements through our diets and contact with these environmental media.

Anthropogenic activity, such as agricultural soil management or industrial contamination, can further alter the concentrations and ratios of elements that humans, animals or plants are exposed to. It is via exposure to our local environment, through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air (and dust) we breathe in, that small but measureable chemical concentration changes take place in the tissue of organisms.

We can use the measurement of these concentrations as part of a suite of tools to assess actual exposure to contaminants, and demonstrate whether high environmental concentrations are causing high body burdens of chemicals. We can apply the same technologies in other situations to investigate the likely origin or movement of the organisms we are studying, through using chemical properties as a "fingerprint" of the geochemical environment of origin.

Our external partners in this theme include specialists in public health, epidemiology, toxicology, risk assessment, fisheries protection and archaeology.

Research topics

  • biomonitoring of private water supply users in Cornwall
  • biological markers in invertebrates exposed to contaminants in soils and sediments
  • the impact of soil geochemistry on food chemical composition and hidden hunger in Malawi
  • tracing migration of wild fish stocks
  • the impact of pollution, climate change and overfishing on shellfish for stock management and protection
  • geochemical tools applied to archaeological sciences


For further information contact Michael Watts, Louise Ander or Simon Chenery.

See also