Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Walking like Dinosaurs

Ever wondered how Triceratops trotted or Spinosaurus sprinted? If you’re an aspiring palaeontologist, or just curious about the locomotion of long extinct beasties, you can join me at the  Edinburgh Science Festival to unpick how dinosaurs made their moves! I shall be giving a lecture on Thursday and Friday this week at Summerhall (Summerhall Place) in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

X-rays brighter than a million Sun's show fossil leaf chemistry preserved for 50 million years!

Palaeontologists, geochemists and physicists from the University of Manchester, (UK) Diamond Lightsource (UK) and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (USA) have published a new paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Metallomics, that has shed new light, in fact one of the brightest lights in the universe, on 50 million year old fossil plants.
Optical plus x-ray false colour composite image (Cu=red, Zn=gren and Ni=blue), image width 17cm. Also visible are characteristic trumpet shaped feeding tubes left by ancient caterpillars: feeding tube chemistry matches the leaves. Data collected at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.
Dr. Nicholas Edwards, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester and a lead author on the paper said: “The synchrotron has already shown its potential in teasing new information from fossils, in particular our group’s previous work on pigmentation in fossil animals. With this study, we wanted to use the same techniques to see whether we could extract a similar level of biochemical information from a completely different part of the tree of life.”

False colour image of copper (red) and zinc (green) distribution within a modern leaf (A. pseudoplatanus). The distribution of these metals defines the vascular system. Image width ~3 mm. Image from data acquired at the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility.      
Dr. Edwards went on to say “To do that we needed to test the chemistry of the fossil plants, to see whether the fossil material was derived directly from the living organisms or degraded and replaced by the fossilisation process. We know that plant chemistry can be preserved over hundreds of millions of years. Today we even rely on this preserved chemistry as the fossil fuels that power our society.”

However, this is just the “combustible” part, until now no-one has completed this type of study of the other biochemical components of fossil plants, such as metals.

By combining the unique capabilities of two synchrotron facilities, our team were able to produce detailed images of where the various elements of the periodic table were located within both living and fossil leaves as well as being able to show how these elements were combined with other elements.

The work shows that the distributions of copper, zinc and nickel in the fossil leaves were almost identical to those in modern leaves. Each element was concentrated in distinct biological structures such as the veins and the edges of the leaves. Also, the way these trace elements and sulfur were attached to other elements was very similar to that seen in modern leaves and plant matter in soils.

X-ray false colour composite image (Cu = red, Zn = green, and Ni =blue) of a 50 million year old leaf fossil. Trace metals correlate with original biological structures. This leaf was skeletonized by insects which have left behind characteristic trumpet shaped feeding tubes as shown in the inset. Inset: copper only map revealing detail of feeding tube and fine scale veins. Feeding tube chemistry matches the leaves. Image width ~17 cm.  Data collected at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.

Professor Roy Wogelius, also of the University of Manchester and one of the senior authors said: “This type of chemical mapping and the ability to determine the atomic arrangement of biologically important elements such as copper and sulfur can only be accomplished at a synchrotron. In one beautiful specimen, the leaf has been partially eaten by caterpillars and their feeding tubes are preserved on the leaf. We see this behaviour with modern caterpillars. The chemistry of these fossil tubes remarkably still matches that of the leaf on which the caterpillars fed.”

The data from a suite of other techniques performed at the University of Manchester has lead the team to conclude that the chemistry of the fossil leaves is not wholly sourced from the surrounding environment as has previously been suggested but represents that of the living leaves.

Another modern day connection suggests a way in which these specimens are so beautifully preserved over millions of years. We think that copper may have aided preservation by acting as a ‘natural’ biocide, slowing down the usual microbial breakdown that would destroy delicate leaf tissues. This property of copper is utilised today in the same wood preservatives that you paint on your garden fence before an inclement season.

Dr. Uwe Bergmann a co-author on the paper from Stanford, also remarked: “Part of what I do involves detailed measurements of the physics of how plants actually harness light energy using transition metals. Here, we are able to show what metals were present, and where, within extremely old plants- and this just may let us understand, eventually, how the complicated physics of life has developed over long periods of time.”

   Fine scale false colour X-ray map of the Cu distribution within a modern leaf (left) compared to a 50 million year old fossil leaf (right). Primary, secondary, and tertiary venation comparable to the modern leaf can be resolved in the Cu distribution even after 50 million years of ageing. Data acquired at the Diamond Light Source (left panel), the UK’s national synchrotron science facility, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (right panel), a national user facility operated by Stanford University on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.  Image widths: left ~2.5 mm, right ~10 mm.  Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Edwards et al 2014, Metallomics, DOI:10.1039/C3MT00242J.

Dr. Bart van Dongen, another University of Manchester geochemist stated: “There is a sharp contrast in the chemistry of the fossils from that of the rock in which they are entombed. This is true for both the trace metals and the organic compounds. The organic part of the chemistry clearly shows a plant derived component.” Dr. Nicholas Edwards added: “This opens up the possibility to study part of the biochemistry of ancient plants, so in the future it may enable us observe the changes, if any, in the use of metals by the plant kingdom through geological time.”
It seems the fidelity that fossil leaves already bring to the palaeontological table has been significantly enhanced by these new findings.

If you want to download our latest paper click HERE!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Photon-fickle fun foraging for flat fossils...

While it is often splendid viewing the beautifully fossilised remains of various vertebrates seemingly squished flat on a sedimentary bedding plane, such preservation generates some unique problems for palaeontologists to resolve. Life, as a whole... and usually when it is 'whole'... tends to be rather 3-dimensional (3D). While natural selection has managed to flatten many species to quite physically narrow ecological niches, us vertebrates tend to be a rather rotund bunch (although I often argue it is simply because I am just 'big-boned'). One of the biggest issues for such flattened offerings to the fossil record, is how do we reconstruct these critters back to their 3D state. If this were some 'Tom & Jerry' cartoon, I could see some comical use of an air-hose being inserted in a suitable orifice, but alas...the mineralised remains would not react well to such pneumatic coaxing. When we are studying the often complex jumble of crushed bones that seemingly stick like a meniscus to a slab of rock...we are often left scratching our heads.
A beautifully squished pterosaur on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (Canada), that is NOT the subject of our current synchrotron-based tomography project.
However, the advent of synchrotron-based imaging has provided a few possible avenues to inflate our rather deflated view of such fossils. The use of synchrotron-based elemental mapping, that we undertake at both Diamond and SSRL, might provide detailed information on surface chemistry and the distribution of bones (calcium and phosphate channels work well on this count...down to the calcium phosphate composition of bones)...but we need to dig deeper if we are to recover the 3D geometry of such bones. Once again, a synchrotron can come to the rescue...

Many will be familiar with medical CAT scanners that can yield glorious 3D slices through a live we are using synchrotron-based tomography to similarly tease the hidden geometry of a patient that is well-passed saving, but still well-worth imaging. At ESRF we are sat looking a beautifully squashed looks like it fell into a stony vice that imprinted its immortal remains firmly into a lithographic limestone. Some exquisite bones are visible at the surface, but many are still encapsulated by the encasing matrix that became this animals tomb for many millions of years (yes, I am trying to describe this animal, without giving too much away!). We are now teasing-out the very bones of this beastie with the splendidly powerful x-rays generated by the European Synchrotron here in Grenoble...a mere 26 hours to disinter this vertically challenged skeleton, that can then be digitally recovered from the vice-like grip of the fossil record. In the next few days we hope to learn more about a wonderful beastie that has been stuck within a rocky veneer for far too long!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

European Synchrotron Facility (ESRF)

After a short flight to Geneva, followed by a scenic drive to Grenoble, Bill Sellers and I have just arrived at ESRF to start work with some new colleagues....Dr. Fabien Knoll (soon to join Manchester as a Marie Curie Fellow) and his splendid colleague Professor Jose Luis Sanz from the Autonomous University of Madrid. This is both mine and Bill's first visit to here begins the exponential learning curve!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Conversation and Dinosaurs...

Today I took some respite from grant writing, research, public lectures and reviewing papers to visit Professor Mike Benton at the University of Bristol. Mike is certainly one of the most influential vertebrate palaeontologists in the world today and he has also had a very positive impact upon my career. More importantly, he is an all-round splendid chap who regularly delivers public lectures on palaeontology to help captivate and capture the next generation of fossil-hunters. We had recently been asked to deliver a joint lecture at the Cheltenham Science Festival, so we decided to meet and discuss a plan of attack for the said event. After an hour of simply talking through the topics available, it became clear that a simple conversation, as opposed to lecture, might work best for the event. So, if folks want to come along in June (3-8) can listen to Mike and I...'Talking with Dinosaurs'.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A dinosaur with no name....yet!

Sue and Stan the T. rex. Raymond and Lane the Triceratops. Dakota the Edmontosaurus...what would you call a rather grumpy Gorgosaurus?

Monday, 20 January 2014

Red Bull, Coffee and Cookies....

Dawn is breaking and the Sun is softly lighting the morning skies above the Stanford Synchrotron. A chill is in the air that bites harder than you might expect, given the daytime temperatures will soon rise into the 70's. I slowly drag my feet up the gentle hill from Building 120 (that houses the accelerator). The various cocktails of caffeinated drinks, chatter and cookies have kept my brain whirring all night, but now it is time to sleep. Entering into the Stanford Guesthouse (our site-based accommodation), I bump into one of the Manchester day-shift. It seems I will by-pass another glorious day of Californian sunshine, but who needs the excess solar-rays when you can have x-rays brighter than a million Suns!

Friday, 17 January 2014

Beam team member down......

This beam run is missing one of our splendid colleagues....Pete Larson. He is a casualty of the cruel cold snap that chilled the whole of North America to the bone with a blast from the Arctic. He was simply walking outside his humble abode when he slipped on a patch of ice...and Sir Isaac Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation was painfully put to the test. The distal end of Pete's right leg went one way and his body mass the other....the torsion in the lower limb was too much for his fibula to bear. Thankfully, Pete's bone did not emulate the injury that is beautifully fossilised in gruesome detail from a rather poor Gorgosaurus that had a vile compound fracture in its right fibula...with the distal end of the bone so snapped it would have clearly poked through the poor dinosaurs skin (I am talking about the Gorgosaur here and not Pete!). Pete has required steel pins to hold his distal fibula and ankle together (see image below)....the Gorgosaurus had to bear its weight upon the cruel trauma until it healed (in this case...quite badly). It seems that both Gorgosaurus and Pete had/have what it takes to survive and limp to see another day....we look forward to seeing Pete back at the Synchrotron soon! It is worth saying that both the bones of Pete and those of the hapless Gogosaurus can be imaged in all their splendid glory via medical or high-powered x-ray microtomography. If a fracture is 10 minutes or 10's of millions of years old, x-rays can shed light on the original trauma and then bones response to healing...a rather painful experiment for Pete to use for a comparative example!


Back at the beam-line....

After a rather long and protracted journey from Manchester to San Francisco, the University of Manchester Synchrotron beam team finally arrived at the Stanford Synchrotron Lightsource yesterday evening...all a tad shattered. Our body clocks were all saying 5am GMT when we crashed to sleep...only to wake-up at 3:30am Pacific time (a relative sleep-in till 11:30GMT). After playing catch-up with work email, we all headed down to the beamline...where we will now be working for the next week. So much for the Californian Sun outside...we will not be seeing that much. It is here at beamline 6-2 that we will gently bathe fossils in the brilliant monochromatic synchrotron light to gently tease-out their elemental secrets. However, before we could start to hunt for the chemical ghosts of past life, we had to spend a whole day aligning the optics of the beam line…sometimes accelerator physics can be ironically slow and frustrating.

Pause for thought: Roberto and Dimosthenis at SSRL

However, the two excellent SSRL scientists, Roberto and Dimosthenis, gently coerced the beam into its correct position...shedding light brighter than a million suns through our 50 micron diameter pinhole. As I sit writing these lines, we have just started to scan our elemental standards to provide a baseline to allow accurate measurements to be taken of the chemical concentrations locked within each fossil that we scan…so, we are ready to do some science!