Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dinosore or were they just healing?

The University of Manchester Palaeo Research Team, working with splendid folks at the Stanford (USA) and Diamond (UK) synchrotron lightsources,  have used state-of-the-art imaging techniques to examine the cracks, fractures and breaks in the bones of a 150 million-year-old predatory dinosaur.

Our team have had splendid fun breaking new ground – using synchrotron-imaging techniques –  that sheds new light, literally, on the healing process that took place when these magnificent beasties were still alive....some 150 million years ago!

The research, published in the Royal Society journal Interface today, took advantage of the fact that dinosaur bones occasionally preserve evidence of trauma, sickness and the subsequent signs of healing, we called these pathologies. The lead author on the paper, Jennifer Ann'e (a PhD student a Manchester) has been methodically wading through the slings and arrows of misfortune that befell revealed by their pathologies. She was quick to see the potential of the existing synchrotron imaging work being undertaken at Manchester and started her grizzly search for a chemical ghost of the healed injuries. 

Allosaurus getting down to lunch.....and possibly acquiring its own injuries in the process!

Diagnosis of these fossils usually relies on the grizzly inspection of the morphology of gnarled bones and healed fractures, often entailing slicing through a fossil to reveal its cloying secrets. But the synchrotron-based imaging, which uses light brighter than 10 billion Suns, meant our team could tease out the chemical ghosts lurking within the preserved dinosaur bones, albeit on samples that had previously been sliced and studied using the traditional (optical microscopy) approach.

It is a fine line when diagnosing which part of the fossil was emplaced after burial and what was original chemistry to the organism. It is only through the precise measurements that we undertake at the Diamond Synchrotron Lightsource in the UK and the Stanford Synchrotron Lightsource in the US that we were able to make such judgments.

The impact of massive trauma, we discovered, seemed to be shrugged off by many predatory dinosaurs – fossil dinosaur bones often show a multitude of grizzly healed injuries, most of which would prove fatal to humans if not medically treated.

Using synchrotron imaging, we were able to detect astoundingly dilute traces of chemical signatures that reveal not only the difference between normal and healed bone, but also how the damaged bone healed.

Jon Hoad's splendid image of Allosaurus....with a wonderful howl of pain!

It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defence mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries. The ability to diagnose such processes some 150 million years later might well shed new light on how we can use Jurassic chemistry in the 21st Century.

The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs. Bone does not form scar tissue, like a scratch to your skin, so the body has to completely reform new bone following the same stages that occurred as the skeleton grew in the first place. This means we are able to tease out the chemistry of bone development through such pathological studies.

As Jennifer pointed out to me today, "It's exciting to realise how little we know about bone, even after hundreds of years of research. The fact that information on how our own skeleton works can be teased out using a 150-million-year-old dinosaur just shows how interlaced science can be."

I also have to add that great moments in science are rarely met with the words "Eureka" with Jennifer Ann'e (aka 'Indy') we usually hear a delighted "Woot-woot" coming from her lab!

A copy of the paper, ‘Synchrotron imaging reveals bone healing and remodelling strategies in extinct and extant vertebrates,’ can be downloaded on this LINK!

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