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Breakthrough Gives 3-D Vision of Dawn of Life 54

butterwise writes "MSNBC reports that a new scanning technique could revolutionize paleontology. The new technique is allowing researchers a virtual dissection of half-billion-year-old fossilized embryos." From the article: "The Chinese, Swedish, Swiss and British researchers on Donoghue's team used a 1,640-foot-wide (500-meter-wide) particle accelerator in Switzerland to scan the minute fossils, and then fed the information into a computer that generated complete 3-D images of the internal structures in fine detail."
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Breakthrough Gives 3-D Vision of Dawn of Life

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  • Spiffy, but how they going to get one of these things out into the field?

    I suppose they must really want to, or the owners of this particle accelerator are very cool with, see what's inside

    there's a little sticker on this one, it says Ant-Hill Inside

    • What are you talking about "get it out in the field"? Its research, not "Particle acclerator 3d microscopic embryo scanner, order yours today!"
    • Re:Spiffy, but... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:50PM (#15876918)
      Tiny fossils are easy to get back to the lab, unlike, say, a multi-metre-long Tyrannosaurus rex, which takes a big excavation.

      The 3D reconstruction of fossils isn't new. That's been done for, oh, probably close to 100 years. In the early 20th century, it was done by grinding down a fossil specimen millimetre by millimetre, sketching or photographing each surface, and then putting together a wax or paper model of each section until the 3D shape is reconstructed. It's been done for everything from fossil plants to fish and other vertebrates. Very laborious work.

      More recently, people do the same thing, but take a digital picture of the sections and use software to assemble a 3D volume and select and render parts of it. If the object is relatively large (say, centimetres in size and larger), it can alternatively be subjected to medical CAT and other types of non-destructive 3D imaging techniques. This is routine for specimens such as dinosaur skulls, in order to see the interior without destroying the specimen. If the fossil is small and transparent, 3D imaging can be done with laser scanning confocal microscopy []. But opaque, small (say, require the destructive serial sectioning method, meaning you have a nice, scientifically valuable 3D reconstruction [] at the end of the procedure, but no specimen anymore.

      The new part in this technique is therefore the *non-destructive* 3D reconstruction of such tiny fossil specimens. That's where the particle accelerator becomes necessary to get sufficient resolution to be useful. This is much higher resolution than typical 3D medical imaging. The general technique isn't that unusual, because it has existed for years too. It is the application to microfossils [] that is relatively new (Nature registration required to view that last article).

      Oh, and if people are wondering what "penis worms" are (the jokes are piling up by now), the technical term is Priapulida []. More details at the linked page.

      Yeah, I know. I'm spoiling the fun.
  • by Anti_Climax ( 447121 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:23PM (#15876772)
    ...When they read the photo summary that mentioned the "Penis Worm"?

    That'll teach me to RTFA.
  • by !ramirez ( 106823 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:23PM (#15876774)
    From the article...

    "The results are truly orgasmic," Donoghue said.

    The whole embryo thing makes that funny on so many levels.
  • what? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:24PM (#15876780)
    A series of images, created using a new scanning technique, shows the interior or fossil embryos of an ancient relative of the penis worm known as Markuelia. The creature lived in China and Siberia in the Cambrian Period.

    Markuelia? I call mine Ivan the Terrible.
  • by Sebastopol ( 189276 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:28PM (#15876806) Homepage
    "...shows the interior or fossil embryos of an ancient relative of the penis worm known as Markuelia."

    Sorry, but I'm too immature for this science thing.

    Tee hee.

  • by skogs ( 628589 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @05:34PM (#15876842) Journal

    "ancient relative of the penis worm"

    "The results are truly orgasmic," Donoghue said.

    I am definitely not old enough to read this. In fact, I don't think I ever will be. Penis worm, and Orgasmic. They should never be together.

  • Since apparently there's even a creationist museum [] now in kentucky, where people try to show how fossils were put in the earth to mislead us all or whatever these crazy people believe. Let's hope that generations after us still get to learn actual scientific foundations on paleontology.
  • Will they be able to scan these things in the future using some kind of nanotech viewing device? Nanoscopic devices with all kinds of testing equipment, exploring microscopic things, could be like ants touring a parking lot; instead of us zooming in, they're zooming out.

    I also imagine nanites being less destructive, what with being able to slip in between even molecules without having to "measure with microscope, mark with sharpie, cut with ace" (relatively speaking).
    • I also imagine nanites being less destructive, what with being able to slip in between even molecules

      Well, what an imagination you have! What are *your* nanites built out of that they can slip between molecules without disturbing them...? (Hint: The next thing smaller than a molecule is an atom. Single atoms aren't nanites, and when you stick several together you have a molecule...)
    • One nice thing about imaginations. They let you imagine things that can't be done. Like slip a macromolecular nanobot in between the smaller molecules of living cells.
  • by RelliK ( 4466 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @06:18PM (#15877066)
    These guys were studying "penis worm" and came to the conclusion that "the results are truly orgasmic". You know, you could have done that without the particle accelerator...
  • Yeah, I'm really looking forward to Spore. Glad to hear the rest of /. agrees.
  • Non-damaging? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tired and Emotional ( 750842 ) on Wednesday August 09, 2006 @06:29PM (#15877121)
    I wonder if this really does not damage the fossil. Seems like they are pumping quite a lot of energy in there. Aren't there potential issues from heating? Can someone with expertise give us the details?

    Even if it does do damage, its no doubt less than caused by dissolving off the rock, and then looking at the fossil. I am just curious as to whether it is really totally non-invasive.
    • Heisenberg called. He wants your insight back.

      Anyway, I think it would be quite harmless for fossilized structures, as those minerals are simply quite stable. Even the odd ionization is most likely to just revert after a while. If we would ever want to survey what miniscule remains there might be of actual organic material, then that's a completely different thing. For most fossils, that's completely out of the question anyway.

    • Re:Non-damaging? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by leonidas ( 134452 )
      Although I don't do microtomography myself, I am a synchrotron scientist. I've managed to convince my boss that I qualify as "someone with expertise". ;-) Minerals are quite robust when exposed to x-rays -- even from a highly intense, highly brilliant source like the synchrotron in Switzerland used for this experiment. There is not, in fact, much power put on the sample in one of these experiment. It's on the order of miliwatts, maybe tens of miliwatts, so the sample does not heat up at all. The domina
  • But I never described any of my finds as "orgasmic".
  • Wouldn't 500 million years ago be the Tea Time of Life?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    ...this process actual adds so much energy that it re-animates the embryo, causing it to grow into a full-grown dinosaur in a matter of weeks. So, it's definitely a step forward in the ..... ARRRRGH!!!!!!! IT FEEDS!!!!
  • They're rather boring, but movies can be found here [] of the synchroton-radiation X-ray tomographic microscopy.
  • And just in case you thought that the scientific name of the organisms was kind of arbitrary string of characters, educate yourself: []

    Who said scientists have no sense of humor?
  • pretty intelligent design, eh? Oops ...
  • As Long as they don't try to use the Stem Cells, Everything will be fine.

    Else W will come down like thunder.

  • I always wonder how ideas like this come to life (no pun intended). Can you imagine a dialogue like this:

    Scientist 1: how are we going to research those rare half-billion-year-old fossil embryos?

    Scientist 2: My precioussss.....

    Scientist 3: Well, I've got enough frequent flyer miles to get a free blast at some huge 500 meter-wide particle accelerator in Switzerland...

    Scientist 4: I'm feeling bored.. but hey! Hmm..

    Ok, ok. I realise that this idea is pretty strange. In reality I can only applaud these wonderfu
  • The results are truly orgasmic," Donoghue said.
    Now thats falling in love with your research...

For large values of one, one equals two, for small values of two.