Dinosaur detectives

Organic chemistry in 50 million year old specimens have revealed some surprising secrets about dinosaurs and leaves
04 August 2014

Interview with 

Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius, University of Manchester


Roy, Phil and Graihagh under Gorgosaurus dinosaur


Scientists haven't just been studying the materials that make up today's world. Roy, Phil and Graihagh under Gorgosaurus dinosaurFossil detectives Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius have been looking at specimens that are over 50 million years old. Incredibly, the original chemicals that were in the tissues when they were alive are still there; and using the Diamond synchrotron it's been possible to detect them and learn about more than just the shape of the Earth's earliest inhabitants. Graihagh Jackson went to the Manchester Museum to meet some of them...

Phil -   Just behind me here at the Manchester Museum is this wonderful mounted skeleton gorgosaurus.  You're looking at one of the ancestors of tyrannosaurus rex.

Graihagh -   And she's quite spectacular.  She's maybe 2 or 3 meters high would you say?  She's towering over everyone who enters.  What's so special about her?

Male -   She really had a tough life and it's very easy when you start looking at the front of the jaw to see this horrible bony infection here.  When you go back, she's got this huge tumorous growth on her shoulder blade as well.  When you go to her right leg, she's got a compound fracture where some which show the small bone on the lower leg is poking out through the skin envelope.  She was a mess.  What is the reason behind this?  It's only when they started prepping away at the brain crests, someone spotted little bony struts which shouldn't be there.  Where there should be brain tissue, there were little pieces of bone.  It's a very important part of the brain, these bony struts were occupying.  It was the cerebellum.  This is the motor control centre for this animal.

Graihagh -   Well, what have caused this bony growth?

Phil -   Well, that's the $64,000 question.  What is fascinating with some of these tumours is they are prevalent in rapidly growing youngsters.  What do we have here?  we have a subadult predatory dinosaur that's showing rapidity in growth and as a result of that, we've got a potential tumour which is very, very similar to what we see in mammals today. 

But if it's cancer or not, that's when we have to start looking at other possible signals and that's where we have to start picking apart the actual chemistry of this fossil.  Fortunately, we have access to the Diamond Light Source.  With it, we can pick apart the dilute traces of original chemistry to that arm, within your body, within my body, a fraction of 1% of our bodies is made up of these crucial trace metals that mediate enzymatic reactions and build the proteins that make you you and me, me.  If we can measure those astoundingly dilute concentrations, we can literally look at the recipe of life itself.

Graihagh -   Whilst the recipe of life is a tempting prospect, gorgosaurus is yet to go under the microscope.  So, how do we know that these trace ingredients still exist?  Well, Professor Roy Wogelius from the University of Manchester has already put a fossil to the test.  Roy showed me a specimen taken especially out of the lab from its protective tin foil case, just for this report.

Roy -   What I've brought down for you to have a look at is a 50 million year-old leaf.

Graihagh -   When you say 50 million years, is that before the comet crashed into the Earth and killed all the dinosaurs or is this after?

Roy -   So, this is after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Graihagh -   It's remarkable.  It's really beautiful as well.  Such an amazing specimen.

Roy -   The preservation is absolutely amazing.  It's a little bit smaller than my hand and you can see very, very clearly that's a fossil leaf.  It looks an awful lot like a maple leaf or a sycamore leaf.  The edge of the leaf isn't even flat.  It's got little teeth on it.  There's another thing that's really interesting about this.  If you have a look at this leaf, you can see there's this little patterns that form on.  In fact, it almost spells out CSI.  Part of the leaf tissue is missing.  You could see that the leaf has been kind of skeletonised.  It means that just the veins are left behind. 

What's really remarkable about this, these little things that I said kind of spelled out the letters CSI, if we focus in, they're actually leftover of insect poop.  So, this is a life process - a 50 million year-old insect that's left inside this fossil leaf.  Most people would think that this was just carbonised remains.  There is no chemistry left behind, but in fact, that's not the case.  Copper that's in this leaf, it's still organic, just the way that the copper is bound inside your hair, while I'm standing here talking to you.  In your case, or in the case of humans, that's a pigment coordinated copper.  Here, this is copper coordinated to some chemistry inside the leaf and in fact, the copper that we detect is still bounded exactly the same way in this fossil leaf that's bounded in the leaves of that tree right outside the window.

Graihagh -   So, where exactly did you find the metal in the leaf?  Was it all over or was it more concentrated in certain areas?

Roy -   What's really interesting is that the metals concentrate themselves along the serration tips and we think that that's either, the metal is being put there as a reservoir so that as the leaf grows, there's a little bit of material there, some nutrients so it can grow larger, or it might actually have to do with armouring the tips of the leaves against insect predation.

Graihagh -   This all sounds absolutely fascinating but I couldn't help but wonder what this meant in today's world.  Do trace metals really matter?  I put this question to Phil, back with gorgosaurus.

Phil -   It's like a recipe in a cake.  If you slice up the cake, you can look at it and say, "Yes, we've got cake."  Once you start analysing the chemistry of that cake, you can see the different ingredients which have gone into that baking process to what you finally form.  Here, we can pull apart the chemistry of the healing, and we can look at the various ingredients involved at the different stages of healing.

Graihagh -   Does that mean that by looking at the bones of dinosaurs, there might be a potential future in how we might better heal ourselves?

Phil -   This animal sits perfectly between two organisms we know very well.  One birds and the other crocodiles and alligators.  If they get a whole leg bitten off in the swamp, they can survive such massive trauma.  Birds have this elevated metabolism.  So, they've got the rapidity of healing.  So, when you see bird, if it has an injury, it does tend to heal very quickly.  Here, we've got an animal in the dinosaurs which slap-bang between this rapidity in healing and its remarkable immune system.  When you look at animal like this gorgosaurus, she seems to display a suite of trauma that would kill us mammals.  But she seems to have the elevated rates to aid and abet the recovery process, but also an amazing immune response which has permitted her to heal structures that would kill you and I. So, if we can look to animals like this and their descendants and ancestors, we might come up with a recipe for aiding and abetting the healing process in groups such as our own, the mammals.

Ginny -   Phillip Manning and Roy Wogelius from the University of Manchester.


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