How ancient microbes may have helped build Buckingham Palace

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Buckingham Palace was (of course) built from the ground by humans but a new study suggests ancient microbes may have lent a helping hand. Well, sort of.

A research team from the Australian National University (ANU) says that the material used to build the royal palace and other famous buildings – such as the British Museum and St Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Pentagon in the US – were made by microbes that lived during the Jurassic period around 200 million years ago.

The buildings are constructed from a popular building material called oolitic limestone, so named because it is made of tiny spheres of carbonate called ooids.

An oolite rock from Germany .
An oolite rock from Germany (Lannon Harley/ANU)

Using a mathematical model, scientists arrived at the conclusion that the ooids were made of mineralised microbes forming concentric layers.

According to ANU researcher Dr Bob Burne, this debunks the popular “snowball theory” that ooids were formed by grains rolling on the seafloor and accumulating layers of sediment.

Dr Burne said: “We have proposed a radically different explanation for the origin of ooids that explains their definitive features.

Ooids inside an oolitic limestone.
Ooids inside an oolitic limestone (ANU)

“Our research has highlighted yet another vital role that microbes play on Earth and in our lives.”

Humans have been known to use oolitic limestone since ancient times.

In fact, oolitic limestones from different geological periods have been found around the world, including in Germany, the US, the Bahamas, China and Australia.

 St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral was built with Jurassic oolite (John Walton/PA)

Dr Burne said: “Many oolitic limestones form excellent building stones, because they are strong and lightweight.

“Jurassic oolite in England has been used to construct much of the City of Bath, the British Museum and St Paul’s Cathedral.

“Mississippian oolite found in Indiana in the US has been used to build parts of the Pentagon in Virginia and parts of the Empire State Building in New York City.”

Dr Bob Burne, left, and Professor Murray Batchelor, from the ANU.
Dr Bob Burne, left, and Professor Murray Batchelor, from the ANU (Lannon Harley/ANU)

Study leader Professor Murray Batchelor, of ANU, said: “Our mathematical model explains the concentric accumulation of layers, and predicts a limiting size of ooids.

“We considered the problem theoretically using an approach inspired by a mathematical model developed in 1972 for the growth of some brain tumours.”

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.