I was listening to the RSC Oct ’13 chemistry podcast when I first heard Phil Manning talk about the recovery of eumelanin from fossils. This is particularly exciting since fossils were originally thought to be just outlines of what was living- nothing organic was thought to remain; no DNA or proteins, everything of the animal gone. However, the discovery of eumelanin traces on these fossils opens up the opportunity of discovering more about these little known pre-historic creature. Eumelanin and other pigment substances are able to tell us about the colour and pigmentation of the pre-historic being, so opening up a realm of ideas about what they could have looked like.
The good thing about the technique used to discover these traces was that they used “Synchrotron light”. This uses the electromagnetic radiation given out when fast moving (approaching the speed of light) electrons change direction inside a magnetic field which allows us to map the presence of atoms. However it is the non-destructive nature of this technique which makes it so amazing since no material is destroyed or damaged in the process!
To understand more about eumelanin I looked more into the simple “melanin”. Eumelanin is one of 2 classes of melanin: eumelanin (black) and pheomelanin (red). Melanin is a substance formed as part of the process of metabolizing an amino acid called tyrosine and is formed by melanocyte cells in the skin. Albinism is a disease that is associated with the lack of melanin and melanin is often found parts of the brain such as the medulla and zona reticularis of the adrenal gland.
For more on the fascinating research around melanin and eumelanin visit: http://chem.virginia.edu/faculty-research/faculty/john-d-simon/