Podcast: Could injured dinosaurs help modern medicine?

Allosaurus

Allosaurus

24 June 2014 by Richard Hollingham

This week in the Planet Earth podcast, Victoria Egerton, Bill Sellers and Phil Manning of the University of Manchester describe how the bones of a 72-million-year-old, 2·2m-tall 7·4m-long predatory dinosaur reveals intimate clues about how it lived and how it survived massive trauma.

To assist those who find text-based content more accessible than audio, a transcript of this recording is available below.

Richard Hollingham: This time in the Planet Earth podcast, could injured dinosaurs help modern medicine? I'm Richard Hollingham and I've come to the University of Manchester to meet scientists who have used lasers, light and x-rays to investigate 150 million year old fossils, and I'm in a laboratory surrounded by the bits, the life-sized cast of a dinosaur. There are the legs on in the table, there's the backbone on the floor, there's a head and fearsome teeth. Just to give you an idea of the scale of this the leg alone is probably about my height, so a little under two metres high. I'm with Phil Manning, Victoria Egerton and Bill Sellers who conducted this research - research that will be featured at this year's Royal Society Summer Exhibition in London.

Victoria, let's talk first of all about what is around us. What is this dinosaur and what are the bits we are looking at?

Victoria Egerton: Well this is a predatory dinosaur, the Two Medicine Formation, from the United States. This dinosaur was about 2·2 metres and about 7 metres, really big teeth and it looks similar to a T-Rex but a bit smaller.

Richard Hollingham: I mean the head alone which - best to describe it - is the size of a small fridge with the fearsome teeth and each tooth... some of them are about ten centimetres in length.

Victoria Egerton: Yes, so this guy would have been eating various other animals like hadrosaur dinosaurs which are the duck-billed dinosaurs and chasing them around the plains of America.

Richard Hollingham: Bill, how fast would this thing have been able to go then? I mean, just look at the femur of the leg - these are big legs and I can probably just fit my hands the way around that.

Bill Sellers: There are lots of arguments about exactly how fast these are because you could imagine that the animal was a scavenger and didn't have to go very fast, but actually the sort of work that we've done looking at musculoskeletal reconstructions suggests that they were probably quite quick and this guy could maybe go ten, 15 metres per second.

Richard Hollingham: So not something you would want to come across on the plains?

Bill Sellers: Certainly much faster than you or I.

Richard Hollingham: Now, Phil, you're investigating this because you were particularly looking for injuries and how it survived those injuries.

Phil Manning: We're always trying to unpick these wonderful puzzles and secrets that hide in the skeletons of dinosaurs and other extinct beasties but this one, in particular, is of interest to us because it has a whole suite of injuries and we're always looking for a cause - an alleged smoking gun as to what's behind these traumas and for us the most interesting thing about this particular skeleton is there looks to be a tumour in the brain. Now, it's in a part of the brain that is responsible for controlling locomotion. So with that in mind you then look at the rest of the skeleton and there's an absolute open sandwich of injuries across this animal from broken legs, compound fractures, fused vertebrae, from broken bones and even down to nasty dripping sores from where the lower jaw was literally being eaten away from some bacterial infection. This was one unhappy dinosaur!

Richard Hollingham: So not only was it fearsome it was injured and really probably a bit mad?

Phil Manning: Probably as mad as a box of frogs but with a box of frogs with large teeth so you would want to keep away from it. But what is absolutely fascinating is we're developing techniques here at the University of Manchester to deliver an understanding of what's happening with these injuries through the use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Richard Hollingham: That's the point really of this. You didn't have to chop these up or do anything invasive, you were bombarding it with either high energy light, with x-rays, even using lasers.

Phil Manning: There are techniques which have been around for hundreds of years which involved slicing bones in half, so you can understand something of what we call the histology, literally the structure of that bone, but it is incredibly destructive. The techniques which the whole team here have been delivering over the last ten years is one which uses a suite of techniques which allows us to non-invasively, non-destructively analyse the bones both in their morphology, their shapes, their actual chemistry and even the internal microstructure of the bone without actually harming the specimen.

Richard Hollingham: Can we take a look at one of the specific injuries that you studied on this dinosaur?

Phil Manning: What is wonderful here is if we look down at the backbone, there are two backbones here, and if you feel over the back of your neck and rub the top of your backbone you can feel the little neural spines poking up there. Now, they connect down to a cotton reel spool-sized vertebrae, they are individual vertebrae. Ideally you want them to be remaining individual through life; it gives you a lot more mobility. Here you can see this animal has got two of these bones literally stuck together by an enormous plug of bone that has grown over the two vertebrae. Now this is more than likely a result of an injury. When it is a healed injury we call it pathology, so we're fascinated by understanding how this occurred and we can do this using super high powered x-rays within laboratory sources to literally cut through virtually into the bone and we can see how the bone is repaired.

Richard Hollingham: So you get an idea by using these modern techniques of the injuries but also the sort of life it had.

Phil Manning: It's the closest we can get to putting a finger on the pulse of this animal because the injury and the subsequent healing and growth of bone tells us so much about this organism because bones are fascinating and we know an awful lot about bone and how it grows but it is how it reacts to injury which is really interesting and trauma. Because when you see how a bone heals it can give us clues about its physiology, even metabolism, so we're fascinated by studying things and also, more importantly actually, if it can heal really well it can teach us something. Because, if you imagine if you get an injury like that it can really mess up your day, you would have a bad day with that kind of injury. This animal couldn't wander down to A & E to get treated; this survived and quite happily healed through its own devices so there's a series of events which allowed this animal to survive such massive trauma.

Richard Hollingham: Bill, what can we learn from studying the injuries, the survivable injuries of an ancient dinosaur?

Bill Sellers: Well we learn a lot about how animals in modern day coped with being injured and it is really no different. You have many situations where you don't want to be the weak member of the herd because you will be the one that gets picked off by the predators and so animals are very, very good at hiding the fact that they are injured and of course this animal had horrible injuries but managed to survive so it was clearly in a situation where it was able to still get food, it was able to still function as an animal.

We also learn a lot about the process of injuries, so if this animal was suffering from disease then we can see records of that on the skeleton and if some of these injuries are caused by trauma then we can reconstruct something about the behaviour of the animal - was this the result of a big fight, or was this the result of falling over while running at high speed. So suddenly we can build up a picture of what this animal was like when it was alive.

Richard Hollingham: So this had, what, broken limbs you think, fused vertebrae, a brain tumour - these are not things that we would survive and yet it did, so are there applications for modern medicine?

Bill Sellers: So obviously it is very difficult to look at a fossil and work out the pharmacology of what was going on but what we can do is we can look at modern relatives of these animals and we can actually use them directly to produce no drugs and new treatments. So, for example, people have been looking very interestingly at things like crocodiles, so these are modern relatives of dinosaurs and they have a really interesting physiology that lets them cope with injuries, for example, where they can deal with infection in ways that are quite different from mammals and people have been looking at the processing in crocodiles and using this to try and come up with novel compounds that can be used to treat infection in humans.

Richard Hollingham: Phil, that seems extraordinary, because we all know dinosaurs are cool, dinosaurs are fantastic but actually that you can learn things that are applicable today from studying something that is so old.

Phil Manning: For me what is remarkable and why this science is so exciting is that you've got a team working at the absolute fringes of their own discipline. It is truly interdisciplinary. You have biologists, physicists, engineers, chemists, all coming together and even palaeontologists to study these bones and to shed new light on something which we'd probably never even thought of looking at in this fashion ten or 15 years ago.

Richard Hollingham: And it becomes much more than just a pile of bones which is what we're surrounded by, you are actually figuring out how this thing lived and how it survived.

Phil Manning: This is the fossil fuel of our subject, we can't do without it and if we're going to understand more about what happens to animals through deep time it is great to isolate an individual like this which is, as we say, a whole suite of things to study but every single fossil through deep time can benefit from our new techniques that we're developing and literally shedding new light on the evolution of life on earth.

Richard Hollingham: Now, this work and other research in the group is being featured at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in London from the 1st to the 6th July and you can get in free and, Victoria, this will be the first time anyone will be able to see this particular dinosaur.

Victoria Egerton: That's right. This is the first time this dinosaur will be on display here in the UK and after the Royal Society it will be on permanent display at the Manchester Museum.

Richard Hollingham: Well thank you all very much, Phil, Victoria and Bill. We will put photos from today's recording on Facebook and Twitter pages for Planet Earth online. And that's the Planet Earth podcast from the Natural Environment Research Council. I'm Richard Hollingham, from the University of Manchester thanks for listening.