Resurrecting dinosaurs with medical scanners and 3D printers

CT scans and 3D printers are making it possible to see fossils that were previously inaccessible inside rock.

Accurate copies of fossilised bones can now be made from the combined use of computed tomography (CT) scans and 3D printers, according to a paper published in the journal Radiology.

The technique offers scientists a non-destructive way of transporting and handling rare or fragile fossils.

To protect such specimens from damage during transportation, the fossils are often stored in plaster jackets or casts. These jackets must be strong enough to protect the fossils, but should also separate easily from the specimen when removed.

It is during the removal of the plaster and surrounding sediment that the fossil is in danger of material loss or even destruction. This typically occurs when the plaster is stuck fast to the bone.

(A 3D print of a fossil (right) next to the original still inside a plaster jacket. Image: Courtesy of Radiology and RSNA)

A group of German researchers found that, by using CT and 3D printers, they could separate fossilised bone from its surrounding sediment matrix in a way that would not harm the specimen, then produce a 3D copy of it.

Applying this method to an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, the researchers scanned the bone with a 320-slice multi-detector system to show up the different attenuation (absorption of radiation) through the bone and the surrounding sediment matrix, depicting clearly the fossilised vertebra.

The scan also provided information on the condition and integrity of the specimen, like otherwise unknown fractures, and helped the researchers build an accurate reconstruction of the fossil.

Then using a laser sintering system – a process which uses high-powered lasers to fuse materials by adding thin horizontal layers of plastic – an accurate 3D copy of the fossil was produced.

(An enlarged 3D copy of a 380 million year old coelacanth skull found near Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Image: John Long)

The impact on palaeontology
According to Richard Brian Gunderman, a professor of radiology at Indiana University who was not involved in the study, CT scanners are able to determine the exact structural dimensions of an object, down to fractions of a millimetre.

This data can then be used to construct a replica so precise that objects of great historical interest, like Stradivarius violins, have been created to sound remarkably similar to the originals.

“Such a technology has been a boon to palaeontologists in the past few years,” said John Long, strategic professor in palaeontology at Flinders University.

“Once we relied on meticulous time-consuming methods to prepare delicate fossils out of the rock and, even then, we could only see their external features. Now, using high-resolution micro-CT scanners and synchrotrons [particle accelerators], we can investigate every nook and cranny of the fossil right down to individual cells and tissue structures without having to risk damaging the specimen.

“Combined with advanced 3D printing, we can now slice though the ancient fossil skulls and print them in halves showing the full anatomy in clear definition. This will no doubt revitalise palaeontology.”

(A 3D scan of a 380 million-year-old Gogonasus fish skull by Tim Senden and ANU Vizlab.)

Ahi Sema Issever, from the Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin and one of the study’s authors, explained: “The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive so the risk of harming the fossil is minimal. In addition, not only does this method allow for a global exchange of rare fossils in any quantity, data on the specimens can also be digitally shared between research institutes, museums and schools while protecting the original fossil.”

Darren Curnoe, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, agreed, saying: “Famous fossils like the Taung Child in South Africa - the very first ancient ape-like creature found in our human evolutionary tree - has been quite badly damaged following almost 90 years of study by scientists.

“Almost everyone who sees the fossil wants to take a couple of measurements of their own, and by doing so, is damaging these priceless pieces of our collective heritage. We need to do better, and such technology might just be the answer.”

A note of caution
Although supportive of the technological breakthrough in this study, Professor Long warned that researchers must not rely too heavily on tomographic imagery and 3D printing to draw their conclusions.

“It is important to carefully study the preservational biases of the original fossil first to determine how reliable a computer-generated image will be. In some cases, replacement of bone by other minerals or the presence of solid inclusions can effect the quality of CT images and affect 3D printing results.

“Scientists still need to study the original specimens in detail first, and then make interpretations using CT tomography and 3D printing.”

(A scanned 400 million-year-old placoderm eye capsule found in Taemas near Canberra. Image: Tim Senden)

Associate Professor Curnoe agreed, saying: “Any model made from CT scans must properly distinguish actual bone from missing bone, or even from materials like plaster, that had been used in the past to reconstruct missing bones in the fossils. This is particularly important since most fossils found are incomplete or distorted.

“In the end, there is nothing like seeing the real thing to fully understand the anatomy and the state of preservation of a fossil. But, for the sort of work many scientists do, especially postgraduate students, 3D models would be incredibly useful at a time when funding can be very hard to get.”

Beyond fossils
Some experts speculate that the findings from this study will benefit the medical field, like building and fitting implants in orthopaedic surgery. Others feel that the technique could be used to model real bones and other tissues, such as cadavers that have been preserved in ice or peat bogs.

Martin Baumers, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, would like to see the implementation of a virtual library and data infrastructure for such 3D data and designs. He believes that it would aid collaborative research, allowing experts from different disciplines to share and retrieve 3D models for 3D printing or other scientific, even commercial, usage.

For Professor Long, the biggest breakthrough will come when palaeontologists possess the ability to make portable machines to take into the field and scan fossils, still buried under the rock layers, to determine the full extent of the fossil before excavating it.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

A scan of a 380million-year-old tooth from a fossil shark. (Image: Tim Sendon)
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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