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Taking a slice out of life

Giving News

Timothy Rowe

By Sheila Allee

In the basement of the John A. and Katherine G. Jackson School of Geosciences rests a giant, steel-covered lead box about the size of a maritime shipping container. Despite its nondescript appearance, the box holds some of the most powerful scanning equipment in the world. That equipment is helping scientists at The University of Texas at Austin and across the globe make historic discoveries about animal life that lived millions of years ago.

Working on the same principles as medical CAT scan devices, this High-Resolution X-Ray Computed Tomography facility, known by scientists worldwide as UTCT, literally photographs “slices” — or cross-sections — of fossil matter so that researchers can better understand the characteristics and capabilities of long-extinct animals. One of UTCT’s two scanners was used in a highly publicized scientific study released this month about the earliest known bird, Archeopteryx.

The bird research was a collaborative effort between UTCT director Timothy Rowe, UT research scientist Richard Ketcham, and Angela Milner, a paleontologist with the London Natural History Museum. Milner flew a fossilized skull fragment of the 147-million-year-old bird from London to Austin so that Rowe and his team could scan it. After taking 1,300 images of the skull, they concluded that birds probably started flying millions of years earlier than previously thought.

“We are in the lead on this,” says Rowe, the J. Nalle Gregory Regents Professor in Geological Sciences. “A lot of labs around the world are trying to develop their own scanning operations, but we are the first to dedicate a machine to natural history.”

Rowe says he, geology professor Bill Carlson, and anthropologist John Kappelman hatched the idea to use a high-powered scanning device in their work in the early 1990s. At the time, there was a company in Austin that built scanning equipment. Using one of its industrial high-resolution devices, the trio scanned a 280 million-year-old skull of Thrinaxodon, an extinct creature about the size of a house cat that is a distant relative of mammals. Their hunch that the scan would give them new information on the animal’s skull proved correct.

After this successful venture, Rowe and his colleagues decided to build a scanner to their own specifications. With funding from the Keck Foundation and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the $1.5 million project was completed in 1998. There are two scanners in the big lead box in the geosciences building, one for large artifacts and the other for smaller items. Plans are under way to build a third scanner for even smaller objects.

Since the UTCT went live, more than 3,000 items have been scanned, about half of which are biological specimens. The scans contribute to a number of NSF research initiatives into amphibians, mammals, birds, and fish. In addition to its biological and paleontological uses, the UTCT has scanned a Martian meteorite from NASA, a 16th-century liturgical hymnal, and sculptural antiquities that are broken and in need of repair — repair made easier by knowledge gained at UTCT.

Thanks to another NSF grant, Rowe and his team have been able to make available about half the scans and their accompanying research findings on a web site known as Digimorph. At www.digimorph.org, users can download and print images from a biological visualization library. Digimorph receives 1.5 million hits a month, mostly from researchers and public school students.

“The scanning equipment is another research tool alongside the microscope,” says Rowe. “And with Digimorph, we can share our results with the world at large rather than have them sit in boxes on a shelf somewhere.”

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