Magazine article Science News

New View: Method Looks Inside Embryo Fossils

Magazine article Science News

New View: Method Looks Inside Embryo Fossils

Article excerpt

Using an X-ray-scanning technique, scientists have taken a high-resolution peek inside fossilized embryos of some of the earliest multicellular organisms. The procedure offers paleontologists a nondestructive way to see what's preserved inside ancient rarities smaller than a pinhead and provides fresh insights into the evolution of life on Earth, the scientists say.

Bones and shells fossilize more readily than an organism's soft parts do, but even delicate tissues such as the multicellular embryos in eggs laid by marine organisms can be preserved under the right environmental conditions (SN: 1/28/06, p. 56).

Previously, scientists had either looked at the surface of a fossil embryo that had been extracted from rock or sliced through the specimen to get a cross-sectional view, says Philip C.J. Donoghue, a geologist at the University of Bristol in England. The first technique provides only limited information, and the latter one is time-consuming and destroys the specimen.

"How to analyze and interpret such fossils is a huge controversy" he notes.

Now, Donoghue and his colleagues have used a two-story-tall synchrotron to shoot high-energy X rays into ancient embryos of marine organisms no more than half a millimeter across. The team fired the X rays through each specimen at about 1,000 different angles.

A computer then assembled the X-ray images for each specimen into a single, three-dimensional model that depicts features as small as 1 micrometer across. The researchers describe their technique and findings in the Aug. …

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