Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Scientists reassemble the backbone of life with a particle acceleratorynchrotron X-rays

Earliest evolutionary attempt to produce a bony sternum identified

Jointly issued with STFC and the Royal Veterinary College London.

This is an artist's impression of an Ichthyostega Tetrapod, with the cut-out showing the 3-D reconstruction of two vetrebrae from the study.

Credit: Julia Molnar

Scientists have been able to reconstruct, for the first time, the intricate three-dimensional structure of the backbone of early tetrapods, the earliest four-legged animals. High-energy X-rays and a new data extraction protocol allowed the researchers to reconstruct the backbones of the 360 million year old fossils in exceptional detail and shed new light on how the first vertebrates moved from water onto land. The results are published 13 January 2013 in Nature.

The international team of scientists was led by Stephanie E. Pierce from The Royal Veterinary College in London and Jennifer A. Clack from the University of Cambridge. It also comprised scientists from Uppsala University (Sweden) and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility ESRF in Grenoble (France).

The tetrapods are four-limbed vertebrates, which are today represented by amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Around 400 million years ago, early tetrapods were the first vertebrates to make short excursions into shallower waters where they used their four limbs for moving around. How this happened and how they then transferred to land is a subject of intense debate among palaeontologists and evolution biologists.

All tetrapods have a backbone, or vertebral column, which is a bony structure common to all other vertebrates including fish, from which tetrapods evolved. A backbone is formed from vertebrae connected in a row - from head to tail. Unlike the backbone of living tetrapods (e.g. humans), in which each vertebra is composed of only one bone, early tetrapods had vertebrae made up of multiple parts.

"For more than 100 years, early tetrapods were thought to have vertebrae composed of three sets of bones - one bone in front, one on top, and a pair behind. But, by peering inside the fossils using synchrotron X-rays we have discovered that this traditional view literally got it back-to-front," says Stephanie Pierce who is the lead author of the publication.

For the analysis, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France, where the three fossil fragments were scanned with X-rays, applied a data extraction method to reveal tiny details of fossil bones buried deep inside the rock matrix. The fossilised bones are embedded in rock so dense it absorbs most of the X-rays. "Without the new method, it would not have been possible to reveal the elements of the spine in three dimensions with a resolution of 30 micrometres" says Sophie Sanchez from University of Uppsala and ESRF who is a co-author of the publication.

In these high-resolution X-ray images, the scientists discovered that what was thought to be the first bone - known as the intercentrum - is actually the last in the series. And, although this might seem like a trivial oversight, this re-arrangement in vertebral structure has over-arching ramifications for the functional evolution of the tetrapod backbone.

Stephanie Pierce explains: "By understanding how each of the bones fit together we can begin to explore the mobility of the spine and test how it may have transferred forces between the limbs during the early stages of land movement".

But, the findings didn't end there. One of the animals - known as Ichthyostega - was also found to have an assortment of hitherto unknown skeletal features including a string of bones extending down the middle of its chest.

Jennifer Clack says: "These chest bones turned out to be the earliest evolutionary attempt to produce a bony sternum. Such a structure would have strengthened the ribcage of Ichthyostega, permitting it to support its body weight on its chest while moving about on land."

This unexpected discovery supports recent work by Pierce and Clack that showed Ichthyostega probably moved by dragging itself across flat ground using synchronous 'crutching' motions of its front legs - much like that of a mudskipper or seal. Dr Pierce adds: "The results of this study force us to re-write the textbook on backbone evolution in the earliest limbed animals."

"At the ESRF, the new data extraction protocol makes it possible to study fossils in dense and heavy rock in unprecedented detail. What we have seen today is only the beginning of more surprises to come," concludes Sophie Sanchez.


Stephanie E Pierce, Per E Ahlberg, John R Hutchinson, Julia L Molna, Sophie Sanchez, Paul Tafforeau, and Jennifer A Clack: Vertebral architecture in the earliest stem tetrapods, Nature advanced online publication 13 January 2013, DOI: 10.1038/nature11825.

Claus Habfast | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Jacobs University supports new mapping of Mars, Mercury and the Moon
21.03.2018 | Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH

nachricht Thawing permafrost produces more methane than expected
20.03.2018 | GFZ GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Helmholtz Centre

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Taming chaos: Calculating probability in complex systems

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

New 4-D printer could reshape the world we live in

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>