Featured Scientist Interview
In May of this year, Dr. George Luther III had the
total citations in the field of Geosciences in
Essential Science IndicatorsSM from
Reuters for the period of January 1, 1998 to
December 31, 2008. Dr. Luther's current record in the
overall database includes 77 papers cited a total of
Dr. Luther is the Maxwell P. and Mildred H.
Harrington Professor of Marine Studies in the College
of Marine and Earth Studies at the University of
Delaware in Lewes. He is also the Editor-in-Chief
of Aquatic Geochemistry.
In this interview,
ScienceWatch.com correspondent Gary Taubes talks with
Dr. Luther about his highly cited work.
Your highly cited papers are on the subject of
chemical interactions with metal-oxides and sulfides in sediments. How
did you get into this line of research?
I was trained as a physical and inorganic chemist. I actually started out
working with high-energy rocket fuels that spontaneously explode in air.
After my graduate education, I got a chemistry position at a small school,
and the chairman of another department, which happened to be the earth and
planetary environment department, said to me, "You’re an inorganic
chemist, so you must know something about metals. We have a problem in
Newark Bay, New Jersey." Newark Bay was well known to have a high
concentration of metals in the sediments, and he asked me if I would be
interested in doing work in the local salt marshes and the water column of
This was the late 1970s, and everything kind of blossomed over the next 10
years. I went from this small college in New Jersey to the University of
Delaware and I was doing more and more of this work in earnest. I made the
switch from pure chemistry to pure and applied environmental chemistry.
What prompted the project described in your 1999
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta paper with John Morse
("Chemical influences on trace metal-sulfide interactions in anoxic
sediments," 63[19-20]: 3373-8, October 1999)?
I had been doing a lot of work with metal sulfides—not necessarily
with John, but we had chatted a lot over the years. John had developed a
method with one of his students to measure trace metals in pyrite, which is
an iron sulfide, as well as in other sulfur phases. He found what he
thought was some very strange chemistry. It wasn’t following what we
would think is a normal thermodynamics pattern. John asked me what I
thought the reason for this was, and I told him that kinetics actually
affects rate processes and the thermodynamic pattern he expected.
What most inorganic chemists know is the rate of water exchange for an ion
in solution. We were comparing everything with pyrite, iron in the plus two
oxidation state, because pyrite is a major phase in sediments. He was
looking at the sediments at the time and he noticed that instead of having
this really nice straight thermodynamic line with all the metals, three
elements fell off of the line. I said that’s because of the kinetics
for the rate of water exchange. So we decided to write a paper showing that
thermodynamics and kinetics both control the amount of trace metals that
could be found in pyrite. It turns out these three metals didn’t have
to go into the pyrite phase, because the rate of water exchange for them
was so fast compared to iron plus two. Those were lead, cadmium, and zinc.
They could form their own sulfide phase before going into pyrite. So
that’s how this paper got going.
Why do you think this paper has been cited so
People want to understand how metals are bound and tied up in sediments.
Sulfide phases are particularly important. For the most part these are
solid phases. In this case, if metals wind up in pyrite, then the question
is, are the metals going to be remobilized in some oxic condition, which
means conditions in which oxygen gets into the sediment? If the metals are
in a pyrite phase, then you have to understand how the pyrite can
For lead, zinc, and cadmium, since they’re not in a pyrite phase, you
have to understand how they redissolve as their own sulfide phases. So we
have all these different metals, and we now provided a thermodynamic and
kinetic rubric by which people could understand how these metals will be
tied up and may be remobilized in sediments. That’s why we think this
paper is important.
A number of people are looking at metal contamination, and if they do that,
they have to know what form the metal is in. As a chemist, you’re
always interested in understanding the actual species or compound that a
particular element is in. Eventually what happens is that this dictates to
some extent how biology will respond to that element. If the element is
tied up in a very strong binding phase, then the metal is not going to come
back out of solution unless you redissolve it under some other condition.
When you’re looking at sediments, you’re looking at the
possibility of reoxidation of these sulfide species.
Eventually people who are interested in it are not just people who
understand how something is tied up, but how biology can deal with that
metal if it needs the metal to do enzyme chemistry. I think that’s
why the paper has gotten such a large number of citations. It’s
valuable for a lot of different people in several different
fields—not just geochemistry but bio-geochemistry, even microbiology.
Did you see this paper being influential when you wrote
I always thought this would do reasonably well. I thought it had a good
flavor of physical chemistry; it explained metal behavior and did it in
such a way that people could easily understand it. That’s something
John and I spent a good deal of time working on. I think we always do that,
but sometimes it comes out better than others. And this one hit a
niche—a number of people are looking at metal chemistry and still
are. This is a good benchmark paper.
Is this research only relevant to polluted environments,
or is there a bigger context?
The context is not just polluted environments. Even pristine environments
can have important levels of these metals, too. Most people doing marine
science have to understand how different materials get into the
environment, what phases they get into, and these sulfides are often
You may not have known this but we’ve developed sensors to measure
oxygen and other ions in sediments. If you’re in the near-shore
environment, the oxygen basically only gets in about two to four
millimeters into the sediment. Below that you’re going to have
processes going on other than oxidative ones, including those where
hydrogen sulfide becomes important. So if you’re studying sediments,
the major phases for these metals are going to be metal sulfides, rather
than metal oxides or even soluble ions.
How has your research evolved in the last decade since
that paper was published?
We’ve been doing metal sulfide chemistry for quite some time. And
we’ve lately been investigating several related subjects. In the same
issue as this paper on metal-sulfides, we had another paper with David
Rickard looking at zinc sulfide in particular (Luther GW, et al.,
"Evidence for aqueous clusters as intermediates during zinc sulfide
formation," 3159-69, October 1999). We were looking at how it forms, and at
the fact that instead of forming only a bulk solid, which you can see as a
precipitate at the bottom of a test tube, you could get zinc sulfide
nanoparticles or molecular clusters forming first.
We’ve been doing a lot of work on that system since then. We’ve
had a number of papers—one in Nature, for
instance—actually looking at these multi-nuclear sulfide species for
iron, copper, and zinc (Rozan TF, et al., "Evidence for iron,
copper and zinc complexation as multinuclear sulphide clusters in oxic
rivers," 406: 879-82, 24 August 2000). We had another paper using our
in situ sensors showing iron sulfide nanoparticles forming at
hydrothermal vents. We were able to show that some organisms live only
where the iron sulfide was found. That paper was called "Chemical
speciation drives hydrothermal vent ecology," (Luther GW, et al.,
Nature 410: 813-6, 12 April 2001).
Why do these organisms live only where there’s
We looked at metals and how they’re taken up by different organisms.
So, for example, plants do photosynthesis, but at hydrothermal vents, where
we’ve been doing research lately, organisms do chemosynthesis, and to
do that, they need hydrogen sulfide that is not complexed to metals. What
we found was that in some environments hydrogen sulfide was free and in
others it was bound to metals, particularly iron. So the organisms that do
chemosynthesis were found only in those areas where the hydrogen sulfide
was without iron. And other organisms, the ones that don’t do
chemosynthesis, were found only where the iron and sulfide are bound
together. We can measure that and, by doing so, we’ve shown that some
organisms can live off hydrogen sulfide, and others can’t.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of your
"...plants do photosynthesis, but at
hydrothermal vents, where we’ve been
doing research lately, organisms do
chemosynthesis, and to do that, they need
hydrogen sulfide that is not complexed to
Well, it’s interesting. When you’re doing work at the bottom of
the ocean, the most challenging thing is to be able to get the samples and
do the analysis. One of the things we’ve done over the years is
develop these in situ sensors—real-time sensors that allow
us to measure oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, iron and other species, as well. We
have one sensor that measures all three—oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, and
iron. It makes it very interesting for us, since iron is typically a key
element in all this. Those sensors have made our life considerably easier
and that kind of in situ chemical analysis has been really unique.
Are you surprised at how your research has evolved over
I’d say that having moved from pure chemistry originally into
something that’s both applied and pure, I’d have never dreamed
that I’d ever go down to the bottom of the ocean in a deep-sea
submersible. What else can I say? A few weeks ago I gave a talk to some
Navy submarine vets. I showed them some of the things we’d done and
how we go down a couple of miles to do it. They just couldn’t believe
we do this. They said they’d never go that deep. But they enjoyed
seeing the video we brought back.
If you lived in an ideal world, in which funding was not
an issue, what experiment would you like to do?
Okay, I’m going to give you a twist on that question. I’m at a
marine campus, not on the main campus, so for me, there’s some work I
can only get done by going to the main campus. It makes it very
inconvenient. So if I had the financial wherewithal, it’s not an
experiment I would do, but I would love to have a lot of the equipment at
the main campus—the electron microscopes, the x-ray diffraction
devices, the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, some other
analytical tools—down here at this marine campus. That way I
wouldn’t spend so much time running back and forth on the highways.
On the other hand, whenever I go the main campus I get to interact directly
with my colleagues, which is a great thing. So there’s a trade-off.
If I had all the money in the world and had all the equipment I needed down
here, I wouldn’t be interacting with as many high-quality people. And
my students often go with me to the main campus. We have many of our group
meetings in the car. Time is not wasted. So, now that I think about it, I
guess I’ll take life as it is!
George W. Luther III
College of Marine and Earth Studies
University of Delaware
Lewes, DE, USA
KEYWORDS: CHEMICAL INTERACTIONS, METAL OXIDES, SULFIDES,
SEDIMENTS, ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMISTRY, KINETICS, WATER EXCHANGE, PYRITE,
LEAD, ZINC, CADMIUM, METAL CONTAMINATION, HYDROTHERMAL VENTS,
CHEMOSYNTHESIS, ORGANISMS, IN-SITU SENSORS.