Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

Dr. Nicole Bale

Phone number
+31 (0)222 369 462


  • Organic Geochemistry
  • Marine Biogeochemistry
  • Intact polar lipids
  • Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry

Research interests

Microbial lipids: The three domain “lipid divide”

Tremendous progress has been made in the last decade in the genetic characterization of microorganisms, both in culture and in the environment. However, our knowledge of microbial membrane lipids, essential building blocks of the cell, has only marginally improved. This is remarkable since there exists a dichotomy in the distribution of lipids between the three Domains of Life. Diacyl glycerols based on straight-chain fatty acids are produced by bacteria and eukaryotes, whereas archaea synthesize isoprenoidal glycerol ether lipids. From a microbial evolutionary perspectives, this ‘lipid divide’ is enigmatic since it has recently become clear that eukaryotes evolved from the archaea. When novel analytical methodology is used, there is a large hidden diversity in microbial lipid composition that may resolve this fundamental question. We propose to systematically characterize prokaryotic intact polar lipids with state-of-the-art analytical techniques based on liquid chromatography and high-resolution mass spectrometry to bring our knowledge of microbial lipids to the next level.

Novel biomarkers for symbiotic N2 fixing cyanobacteria in marine diatoms.

This research project focuses on tracing marine symbiotic heterocystous cyanobacteria in present and past marine environments. It is important to gain more knowledge about these cyanobacteria because they are sustaining marine primary production in the oligotrophic ocean. The development of a new glycolipid biomarker will allow the investigation of cyanobacteria – diatom symbioses in the natural environment and assess the importance for present day fixation of dinitrogen in the ocean. In addition, the application of this new tracer to analyze the sediment record has the unique potential to improve our knowledge of the paleo-N-cycle. Elucidating the contribution of dinitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in the past when the atmospheric CO2 levels were high will give clues to predict changes in the nitrogen cycle during the expected high CO2 future.

You can read about the HCC research cruise as part of this project here.


Detailed study of the nitrogen cycle in the North Sea and Wadden Sea

This research formed part of a multi-disciplinary project entitled “The nitrogen cycle and changes in the carrying capacity of coastal waters (NICYCLE)”. This project, funded as part of the Dutch National Program for Sea and Coastal Research (ZKO), performed an extensive study of key nitrogen cycling microorganisms in the Netherlands’ coastal waters, the North and Wadden Seas. My strength is in analytical chemistry and my work within this project concentrated on the specific intact polar lipids (IPLs) associated with nitrogen cycling microorganisms in order to trace their activity and diversity, using organic geochemical techniques such as liquid chromatography- multistage mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).


2007 - 2011

The response of carotenoids and chlorophylls during virus infection of Emiliania huxleyi (Prymnesiophyceae). Llewellyn, C. A., Evans, C., Airs, R. L., Cook, I., Bale, N., Wilson, W. H. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 344 (1): 101-112. 2007

Organic geochemical changes in Pliocene sediments of ODP Site 1083 (Benguela Upwelling System). Richard D. Pancost, Christopher S. Boot, Giovanni Aloisi, Mark Maslin, Claire Bickers,Virginia Ettwein, Nicole Bale, Luke Handley. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 280 119–131. 2009

Atmospheric pressure chemical ionisation liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry of Type II chlorophyll-a alteration products: Diagnostic fragmentation patterns. Bale, N., Llewellyn, C. A., Airs, R. L. Organic Geochemistry 41, 473-481. 2010

Type I and Type II chlorophyll-a transformation products associated with algal senescence. Bale, N.J., Airs, R.L., Llewellyn, C.A. Organic Geochemistry. 42,  451–464. 2011


The fate of chlorophyll-a during a viral infection of Emiliania huxleyi. Bale, N.J., Airs, R.L., KimmanceS.K., Llewellyn, C.A. Aquatic Microbial Ecology. 69, 205-210. 2013

Different seasonality of pelagic and benthic Thaumarchaeota in the North Sea. N. J. Bale, L. Villanueva, E. C. Hopmans, S. Schouten, and J. S. Sinninghe Damsté. Biogeosciences. 10, 7195-7206. 2013


Diversity and distribution of a key sulpholipid biosynthetic gene in marine microbial assemblages. Laura Villanueva, Nicole Bale, Ellen C. Hopmans, Stefan Schouten and Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté. Environmental Microbiology. 16, 774-787. 2014

Acquisition of intact polar lipids from the Prymnesiophyte Phaeocystis globosa by its lytic virus PgV-07T. D.S. Maat, N.J. Bale, E.C. Hopmans, A-C. Baudoux, J.S. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten, and C.P.D. Brussaard. Biogeosciences. 11, 185-194. 2014

Occurrence and activity of anammox bacteria in oxygenated, sandy sediments of the southern North Sea. Nicole J. Bale, Laura Villanueva, Haoxin Fan, Lucas J. Stal, Ellen C. Hopmans, Stefan Schouten, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté. FEMS Microbiology Ecology. 89, 99 - 110. 2014

Critical assessments of glyco- and phospholipid separation using silica chromatography. Sandra M. Heinzelmann, Nicole J. Bale, Ellen C. Hopmans, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Stefan Schouten, Marcel T. J. van der Meer. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 80: 360-365. 2014

Seasonality and depth distribution of the abundance and activity of ammonia oxidizing microorganisms in marine coastal sediments (North Sea). Yvonne A. Lipsewers, Nicole J. Bale, Ellen C. Hopmans, Stefan Schouten, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté and Laura Villanueva. Frontiers in Microbiology. 5, article 472. 2014


Fatty acid dynamics during viral infection of Phaeocystis globosa. N. J. Bale, D. S. Maat, C. P. D. Brussaard, E. C. Hopmans, A. Mets, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten. Aquatic Microbial Ecology. 74, 85–94. 2015

Long-chain glycolipids with pentose head groups as biomarkers for marine endosymbiotic heterocystous cyanobacteria. Nicole J. Bale, Ellen C. Hopmans, Claudia Zell, Rodrigo Sobrinho, Jung-Hyun Kim, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Tracy Villareal, Stefan Schouten. Organic Geochemistry. 81, 1-7. 2015

Chlorophyll-a transformations associated with sinking diatoms during termination of a North Atlantic spring bloom. Nicole J. Bale, Ruth L. Airs, Patrick Martin, Richard S. Lampitt, Carole A. Llewellyn. Marine Chemistry. 172, 23-33. 2015


Impact of trophic state on the distribution of intact polar lipids in surface waters of lakes. Nicole J. Bale, Ellen C. Hopmans, Petra L. Schoon, Anna de Kluijver, John A. Downing, Jack J. Middelburg, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté and Stefan Schouten. Limnology and Oceanography61, 1065–1077, 2016

Increasing P limitation and viral infection impact lipid remodeling of the picophytoplankter Micromonas pusilla. D. S. Maat, N. J. Bale, E. C. Hopmans, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten and C. P. D. Brussaard. Biogeosciences13, 1667-1676, 2016.

Seasonal changes in the D/H ratio of fatty acids of pelagic microorganisms in the coastal North Sea. S. Heinzelmann, N. Bale, L. Villanueva, D. Sinke-Schoen, K. Philippart, J. Sinninghe Damsté, S. Schouten, and M. van der Meer. Biogeosciences. 13, 5527–5539, 2016


A method for quantifying heterocyst glycolipids in biomass and sediments.  Nicole Bale, Steven de Vries, Ellen C. Hopmans, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Stefan Schouten. Organic Geochemistry. 110, 33-35, 2017

The Holocene sedimentary record of cyanobacterial glycolipids in the Baltic Sea: Evaluation of their application as tracers of past nitrogen fixation. Martina Sollai, Ellen Hopmans, Nicole Bale, Anchelique Metz, Matthias Moros, and Jaap Sinninghe Damsté. Biogeosciences. 14, 5789–5804, 2017


C5 glycolipids of heterocystous cyanobacteria track symbiont abundance in the diatom Hemiaulus hauckii
across the tropical north Atlantic. Nicole J. Bale, Tracy A. Villareal, Ellen C. Hopmans, Corina P.D. Brussaard, Marc Besseling, Denise Dorhout, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Stefan Schouten. Biogeosciences Discussions 2017.

A quest for the biological sources of the ubiquitous long chain alkyl diols in the marine realm. Sergio Balzano, Julie Lattaud; Laura Villanueva; Sebastiaan Rampen; Corina P Brussaard; judith van Bleijswijk; Nicole Bale; jaap S Sinninghe Damsté; Stefan Schouten. Submitted to Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta


Previous employment and study


PhD, Pigment derived biomarkers of phytoplankton fate processes. Plymouth Marine Laboratory & University of Bristol. Supervisors: Dr C. A. Llewellyn, Dr R. L. Airs and Prof. R. D. Pancost.


MSci (Hons) Chemistry with Study in Continental Europe. University of Bristol. Final year research project and dissertation: “The Identification of Maleimides in Marine Sediments from the Benguela and Peru Upwelling Zones”. Supervisor: Prof. R. D. Pancost


Participation in European Erasmus programme, Université Montpellier II, France

Other websites

NIOZ publications

Linked projects

Microbial lipids: Exploring the natural variability of an unique set of cell constituents
European Community - European Research Council
Project duration
1 Sep 2016 - 30 Sep 2021