Magazine article American Scientist

A Fish's Armor

Magazine article American Scientist

A Fish's Armor

Article excerpt

ADAM SUMMERS HAS STUDIED the inner structures of thousands of creatures to see how they work. Along the way, he's learned that the most advanced imaging techniques are not always the most useful ones. Dissecting a specimen or using xrays to scan it can reveal a great deal of detail, but "there's only one way to look directly at the three-dimensional structure of hard and soft tissue without destroying it," he says. . That winner is an unglamorous set of chemical steps known as clearing and staining. At the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs, Summers has refined the decades-old approach into a thoroughly modern visualization tool. The scalyhead sculpin, Artedius harringtoni, shown on this page is a prime result.

For clearing, Summers used trypsin-a digestive enzyme found in your intestines-that attacks most proteins but leaves the collagen that holds together skin and bones. For staining, he applied the dyes Alcian blue, to highlight cartilaginous elements, and alizarin red S, for mineralized tissue. …

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