Innovations
November 2, 2012

Synchrotron helping shed light on Scotty

A Saskatchewan team of geologists, physicists and palaeontologists is hunting for dinosaur DNA using a cutting-edge piece of equipment located in Saskatoon.

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM), part of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport, is behind the research. RSM palaeontologist Tim Tokaryk teamed up with University of Regina physicist Dr. Mauricio Barbi to kick off the project.

They are furthering knowledge of dinosaurs using the Canadian Light Source synchrotron located at the University of Saskatchewan. A synchrotron is an intense light source that researchers use to gather information about a huge variety of physical, chemical, geological and biological processes.

“We’re really at the cusp of a new dawn of palaeontological research,” Tokaryk said. “And the fact that the RSM is playing a significant role in this is exciting.”

The synchrotron can be used to study fossils in two main ways. First, it can be used to examine the surface of the fossils, to create extremely high-resolution images, much higher than any microscope.

It can also be used to study fossils at the atomic level. Using the synchrotron, the researchers might discover DNA and other organic materials inside the fossil, material they couldn’t find without it. Such material has the potential to reveal important information about the creatures they come from, such as evolutionary relationships among species. “With this added tool, we can potentially learn more about the environment the animals lived in,” said Tokaryk.

The machine can also be used to monitor changes in chemistry. Barbi wants to examine how the fossils’ fundamental properties changed as extinction approached. It could, Barbi said, help explain dinosaurs’ extinction. “We are the only ones in Canada doing this sort of research and one of the few teams around the world.”

He is currently performing the hands-on work with the synchrotron, using it to study, among other remains, the vertebrae of Scotty, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered in Saskatchewan’s Frenchman River Valley in 1991.

Barbi met Tokaryk by volunteering to “dust off dinosaur bones” in the RSM’s palaeontology department because his daughter loves anything dinosaur-related.

After attending a lecture at the Canadian Light Source about palaeontology research using the synchrotron, Barbi called Tokaryk to discuss its potential.

The pair talked about physics and palaeontology and “played around with the idea of using the synchrotron,” Tokaryk said. Together, they created and submitted a proposal to conduct research with the synchrotron. It was accepted.

Research began in July 2011 and the early results are promising. Barbi said he hopes the team will be able to publish results by the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013. “We are trying to build a network of institutions that are ready to put Canada in a leading position in this research.”

There are several advantages to using the synchrotron to study fossils instead of other methods. First, scientists can generate a large amount of extremely accurate data in a short period of time. “You can produce more data in an hour using the synchrotron than any other technique,” Barbi said. Scientists can also run tests on the bones without cleaning or preparing them. Other methods require scientists to modify the samples, which can potentially harm their preservation.

Tokaryk and the RSM are invaluable partners in this research, said Barbi. He is a physicist, so he appreciates Tokaryk’s palaeontological expertise. “Tim and the museum provide me with all the samples.  Tim organized fieldwork this summer, so we can go around and pick more samples. The RSM Fossil Research Centre in Eastend is very handy. I simply can’t go forward without the museum, without Tim.”

“The RSM is thrilled to be a partner in this research,” RSM director Harold Bryant said. “It’s an exciting project to be a part of. It reminds people that not only is the RSM a cool place to visit, it’s a well-respected and well-recognized research institution.”

“I’m pleased that the RSM and its partners are using the synchrotron to study fossils. This type of innovative research helps create a stronger scientific community, a stronger Saskatchewan,” said Bill Hutchinson, Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport. “I am eager to learn what our scientists discover about Scotty, our province’s most famous dinosaur.”

Chelsea Coupal is a communications consultant with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport.

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