Tue Mar 28, 2017 | 00:37
New image reveals old skin secrets
Thu, 24 Mar 2011 07:59:44 GMT
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The 50-million-year-old reptile skin helped scientists profile prehistoric biochemicals.
A unique infra-red picture has for the first time revealed organic compounds still surviving in a 50-million-year-old sample of reptile skin.

The image has mapped the organic compounds providing more information on how the skin was preserved, the state-funded BBC reported.

According to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the fossil is so well preserved that it is hard to differentiate it with fresh samples.

"It is a relatively new technique - I think we are the first people to apply it to paleontology," said co-author and geochemist of the University of Manchester Roy Wogelius, adding that the technology does not cause any damage and is safe to be used on rare, valuable museum specimens.

"Now we can apply this organic technique [it] means that there is an awful lot of material that we can analyze in ways people did not realize were possible," he explained.

According to Wogelius, the infra-red mapping technique worked similar to a record player.

"What you do is you take something that transmits light, so if you take a very small needle - about the size of an old phonograph stylus - and make it so it can transmit light," he said.

"You can shine light down through the needle and then when the needle is in contact with the specimen's surface, a little of that light will be absorbed - that is the signal that we use," he added.

"When there is a little more absorption at a certain frequency that is a fingerprint for a particular organic compound," he went on to say.

The team of US and UK scientists used the infra-red technique, and a series of X-rays to confirm that soft tissue was present on the fossil.

Their studies also suggested theories on how the sample had survived for 50 million years.

Their findings reveal that when the skin's organic compounds began to break down, they formed a chemical bond with trace metals that, under certain circumstances, build a "bridge" with the surrounding minerals.

The process, therefore, helped the skin and its remaining soft tissue be protected from further decomposition or erosion.

"These new infra-red and X-ray methods reveal intricate chemical patterns that have been overlooked by traditional methods for decades," Dr Wogelius explained.

"We have learned that some of these compounds, if the chemistry is just right, can give us a bit of a whiff of the chemistry of these ancient organisms."

He also said that their findings could be used in various research areas such as prehistoric creatures' diets.

"Some of the trace metal chemistry is also original to the organism, and that give us hope in terms of understanding some bio-metallic complexes, in particular understanding the coloration and pigmentation of the skin."

"It is very exciting because we can start to pull out more detail," he concluded.

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