Monday, 9 April 2012

Secretive fossils.....

Fossils can be a secretive bunch…. possessing hidden stories encoded in the very chemistry of which they are composed. Some of the brightest x-ray light sources (synchrotrons) in the world allow the imaging, analysis, and reconstruction of chemical traces from prehistoric life. My team and I are no strangers to the fields of particle physics, biology and paleontology, where our interests often collide...shedding intense x-ray light on some very ancient remains. From the writings of Archimedes to prehistoric traces of soft tissues, we have explored fossilized chemical ghosts...occasionally breathing new life into old bones. Fossils that have included the iconic remains of Archaeopteryx to the beautifully preserved Confuciusornis...our team has worked hard to unlock these fossilized echoes of past life. These chemical ghosts will undoubtedly yield benefits to our understanding of Earth processes, from the past and present, but also the future....hence why paleontology should be given its chance at the funding table.
Aerial shot of the Stanford Synchrotron (SPEAR denotes booster and storage ring).
It is a strange twist of fate that the synchrotrons which were primarily built for particle physicists to smash particles together in order to help identify the fundamental building blocks of matter...are now applied to matters most ancient. The crucial by-product of accelerating particles in these cyclic accelerators are the intense x-rays that were initially not utilized by the atom-smashing physicists. However, synchrotrons such as the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL, USA) and Diamond (UK) are now primarily built around x-ray experiments. The Manchester team is working in collaboration with both SSRL and Diamond on analyzing both the fossil remains and living tissues of beasties that occupy our planet today. To understand the past, a pinch of extant flesh is often required (albeit often from museum collections and road-kill!).
Schematic of Diamond Synchrotron Light Source (Oxford, UK).
Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence has been used for many years in quantitative elemental analysis of a whole range of samples. Synchrotron-based XRF imaging combines the elemental sensitivity of X-rays with the high spatial resolution and intensity of synchrotron radiation. Recently the technique has been successfully applied at SSRL to study large objects including human brain slices, Archimedes Palimpsest and rare fossils preserving soft tissue. The unique chemistry of each object is the key to our research….and the subject of future blogs.
C. sanctus....after a synchrotron imaging reveals its hidden plumage patternation!

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