Environment Shining new light on old fossils

Shining new light on old fossils

What we find in our fossils could get a major boost, thanks to new imaging techniques developed by a University of Canberra researcher.

Dr Michael Frese is a molecular virologist by training but he has been hunting fossils for years.

He has found a way to use fluorescence to see fine details in the prehistoric plants and animals he unearths. It could lead to greater discoveries from fossil collections around the world.

“Every palaeontologist knows how difficult it can be to see the delicate anatomical details in fossil specimens,” Dr Frese said.

“For example, fossils often come in shades of brown embedded in brown rocks. In these cases, it would be nice to be able to make the fossil stand out more.

“We use ultra-violet light to image fossils.

“The images we are producing allow us to see the tiniest details, things which until now would have remained a mystery lost to time.”

Dr Frese and his colleagues have shown that fluorescence can be used to produce very detailed images of 150-million-year-old-fossilised fish.

Minerals, such as quartz, often replace the original plant and animal remains during fossilisation. This phenomenon can be used for imaging if the minerals show fluorescence.

The equipment used on the fossilised herring-like fish by Dr Frese and his colleagues is commonly used to analyse DNA or fluorescent proteins in modern biology laboratories.

“For example, we can count the tiniest rays in the fin of a fish, which when looked at under a normal microscope just appear as a mass of white coloured material,” Dr Frese said.

“Being able to see these details gives us far more information than we’ve ever had before. It gives us a better understanding of life millions of years ago and the processes which formed these fossils.”

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