Friday, 13 July 2012

The Palaeontologists: An Adventure with Scientists

Some of you might have recently watch Nick Park's latest animated movie at the cinema, The Pirates: An adventure with Scientists. The basic plot has a pirate captain with his trusty Dodo for his parrot...in the same vain that Manuel on Fawlty Towers had  pet hamster (aka, the rat). The Dodo is recognised by Chales Darwin, who then proceeds to capture the said flightless bird...thought to be the last of its kind. Queen Victoria also enters the chase, but is intent on broiling and eating the said beastie...that is the Dodo and not Darwin. Darwin's goal was simpler, to display his beloved prize at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, an event that has been running since before the real Darwin plucked his first pigeon. A week after we completed our own exhibition at the Royal Society, has given time for the team to reflect on the splendid event.
Roy, Phil, Pete, Bart, Holly & Victoria at the Royal Society...with a slightly dead bird!
The exhibit that we built for the Royal Society reviewed our work on the synchrotron-based imaging of pigment in the fossil record...sadly not a Dodo. However, much of our work has focussed on unpicking the plumage patterns and pigments of primitive birds from the Jurassic (Archaeopteryx) and Cretaceous (Confuciusornis and Gansus). The techniques that we deploy have enabled us to identify and define key chemical biomarkers for pigments that domiate plumage, skin and hair colour...not to mention many other tissue types in the animal and plant kingdoms.

Like many free public exhibitions, the Royal Society Summer Exhibition was busy from the minute the doors opened each morning at 10am till the last punter was gently persuaded to leave the premises at 9pm. We realised that our stand attracted attention both from the science it portrayed but also from the objects we displayed...fossils are simply beautiful and ours were no exception to this rule. Every time I see or touch a fossil, it transports me back in time to the multiple 'worlds' that have evolved, waxed and waned through the history of life on Earth. Fossils provide critical insight to the evolution of life on Earth, but it is their residual chemistry that holds so much more information on their biology and preservation environments.
The long standing paradigm that explained the preservation of plant or animal tissues was governed by mineralisation. Fossils were inert shells, long devoid of life. The resultant fossil was thought a mere echo of the original tissues, with little thought being given to the preservation of original (endogenous) elements and compounds that were metabolised and constructed when the tissue was still alive. The analytical techniques being applied to palaeontology over the last 10 years have seen the fragility of this paradigm. Our work presented at the Royal Society Exhibition surprised many visitors that we could resolve biological compounds from 120 million year old birds...first synthesised by life in the early Cretaceous, but imaged by us in the 21st Century. It was fun to point out to visitors at the exhibit that we are quite willing to accept the preservation of organic molecules that fuel our world today...hydrocarbons can be considered as simple leaks in the carbon cycle...as are fossils.
As the team and I work in the beam hutch at the Diamond synchrotron today, we continue to tease the very molecules of life from the sands of time. This is no easy task and can only be achieved using 21st Century technology...but hopefully, we will get a chance to exhibit of latest findings at future public exhibitions that show how beautiful science can be....even without the aid of a Dodo!

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