WASHINGTON — In a warm and humid Jurassic Period landscape lush with plant and animal life in what is now southwest Montana, an adolescent long-necked dinosaur was miserably sick with flu and pneumonia-like symptoms – probably feverish and lethargic with labored breathing, coughing, sneezing and diarrhea.
Some 150 million years later, the skeletal remains of that unfortunate beast, nicknamed “Dolly,” represent the first-known dinosaur with evidence of respiratory illness – abnormal growths resembling fossilized broccoli on three neck bones that formed in response to an infection in air sacs linked to its lungs.
Scientists said on Thursday the dinosaur appears to have suffered from a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis, a common respiratory illness often fatal to modern birds and reptiles that sometimes causes bone infections. The condition may have killed Dolly, they said.
Dinosaurs suffered from maladies just like any other animals, but evidence is scarce in the fossil record because soft tissue rarely is preserved in a fossilization process that favors hard stuff like bone, teeth and claws. Dinosaur fossils previously have shown pathologies such as broken and healed bones https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-dinosaur/navajo-warrior-dinosaur-was-a-real-fighter-with-a-scar-to-prove-it-idUSKBN21D2R9, tooth abscesses, blood-borne infections affecting bone, arthritis and even bone cancer https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-dinosaur-cancer/gnarly-tumor-shows-dinosaurs-got-cancer-too-idUSKCN24Z2QU.
Dolly belonged to a previously unknown species of sauropod dinosaur, a plant-eating group with long necks, long tails, small heads and four sturdy legs that included the largest land animals in Earth’s history.
Dolly, about 60 feet (18 meters) long and weighing perhaps 4 to 5 tons, died at between 15 and 20 years of age, said Cary Woodruff, director of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana and lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-05761-3.
Similar sauropods generally reached adulthood in their late 20s.
“Poor Dolly. She probably felt terrible with all the same signs and symptoms of a lower respiratory infection that we experience, such as fever, tightness in the chest, labored breathing, a productive cough – eew!” said anatomist and study co-author Lawrence Witmer of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“Was Dolly so sick that she couldn’t keep up with the herd? Did she die from this disease? Did she die alone? We know that she was sick for a long time – it was a chronic disease – because she had it long enough for her bones to respond with nasty reactive bone growth,” Witmer said.
It is not uncommon for sick animals to die not directly from disease but by falling victim to predation or starvation due to its debilitating effects.
“Yes, as scientists we’re excited and intrigued by Dolly’s disease, but as humans who love dinosaurs and another animals, our hearts break when we think about how the last days of this young dinosaur were spent ill, groggy, maybe surrounded by ferocious predators like Allosaurus,” Witmer added.
Allosaurus fossils have been found in the same area.
Dolly’s remains were unearthed in 1990 and 2013-2015. The scientific name of Dolly’s species will be revealed in a future study. The dinosaur appears closely related to the well-known Diplodocus.
The researchers do not know Dolly’s gender, but said the dinosaur was nicknamed after a famous singer.
“After Dolly Parton, of course,” Woodruff said.
Dolly’s dilemma not only sheds light on medical conditions in deep time but provides insight into the anatomical structure of dinosaur lungs and air sacs.
Sauropods and meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, a group that includes birds, possess respiratory tracts far more elaborate than in mammals including people. In addition to lungs, they have thin, balloon-like air sacs that invade the body cavity and many bones. In Dolly, abnormal bone growths were present at the connection between respiratory tissue and bone in three vertebrae, evidence that the infection had spread from the lungs.
Aspergillosis, caused by inhaling spores from a fungus, is the most common respiratory infection today in birds, which evolved from feathered Jurassic theropods and are classified as a branch of dinosaurs.
“I don’t personally know of any fossil I’ve been able to sympathetically relate to more,” Woodruff said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
Getting from point A to point B in the solar system is no simple feat, and inefficient, heavy rockets aren’t always the best way. Therefore, NASA has announced it is moving ahead with a new solar sail concept that could make future spacecraft more efficient and maneuverable. The Diffractive Solar Sailing project is now entering phase III development under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which could eventually lead to probes that use solar radiation to coast over the sun’s polar regions.
The concept of solar sails is an old one — they were first proposed in the 1980s. The gist is that you equip a vessel with a lightweight sail that translates the pressure from solar radiation into propulsion. The problem is that a solar sail has to be much larger than the spacecraft it’s dragging along. Even a low-thrust solar sail would need to be almost a square kilometer, and you need to keep it intact over the course of a mission. Plus, you have little choice but to fly in the direction of sunlight, so you have to make tradeoffs for either power or navigation. Futuristic diffractive light sails could address these shortcomings.
This work is being undertaken at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory under the leadership of Amber Dubill and co-investigator Grover Swartzlander. The project progressed through phase I and II trials, which had the team developing concept and feasibility studies on diffractive light sails. The phase III award ensures $2 million in funding over the next two years to design and test the materials that could make diffractive light propulsion a reality.
A standard lightsail developed by the Planetary Society in 2019.
A diffractive light sail, as the name implies, takes advantage of a property of light known as diffraction. When light passes through a small opening, it spreads out on the other side. This could be used to make a light sail more maneuverable so it doesn’t need to go wherever the solar winds blow.
The team will design its prototypes with several possible mission applications in mind. This technology most likely won’t have an impact on missions to the outer solar system where sunlight is weaker and the monumental distances require faster modes of transportation. However, heliophysics is a great use case for diffractive lightsailing as it would allow visiting the polar regions of the sun, which are difficult to access with current technology.
A lightsail with the ability to essentially redirect thrust from a continuous stream of sunlight would be able to enter orbit over the poles. It may even be possible to maneuver a constellation of satellites into this difficult orbit to study the sun from a new angle. In a few years, NASA may be able to conduct a demonstration mission. Until then, it’s all theoretical.
461 new objects discovered at the edge of our solar system
It increases our knowledge of what’s floating in the Kuiper Belt by a significant margin.
The meteor shower, known as the tau Herculids, could be spectacular, or it could be a total dud.
If it does reach thousands of meteors per hour, it would be a “meteor storm.”
Maximum activity is expected around 1 a.m. EDT Tuesday morning, May 31.
Sky watchers could be in for a memorable spectacle Monday night and early Tuesday morning as the Earth passes through debris from a disintegrating comet, leading to a potential meteor shower with thousands of shooting stars per hour.
The meteor shower, known as the tau Herculids, could be spectacular, or it could be a total dud, astronomers said.
“This is going to be an all or nothing event,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke said in a statement. If it does reach thousands of meteors per hour, it would be a “meteor storm,” as opposed to a shower.
There is “a small chance of something extraordinary – perhaps one of the most dramatic meteor displays since the spectacular Leonid meteor showers of more than 20 years ago,” said Joe Rao of Space.com.
The comet is known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3), named after the two German astronomers who discovered it in 1930. The comet is breaking into dozens of pieces as it orbits the sun, which it does every 5.4 years, NASA said.
In all, SW 3 has broken into more than 68 fragments. At its most recent appearance in March 2017, it showed signs that it sheds pieces in each return through the inner solar system, Rao said.
If it makes it to us this year, the debris from the comet will strike Earth’s atmosphere at 10 miles per second, which is on the slow side for a good meteor shower.
Stargazers will pay attention this year because meteors should be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time, NASA said. The higher the radiant point is in the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see.
Even better, the moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.
For ideal viewing of this or any meteor shower, find a spot away from city lights. Your eyes will need to adjust to the darkness, which could take 15 to 20 minutes. Watching meteor showers can take time, so be patient, experts advise. It could be worth the wait!
Each year, the world loses about 10 million hectares of forest — an area about the size of Iceland — because of deforestation. At that rate, some scientists predict the world’s forests could disappear in 100 to 200 years.
In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at MIT have pioneered a tunable technique to generate wood-like plant material in a lab, which could enable someone to “grow” a wooden product like a table without needing to cut down trees, process lumber, etc.
These researchers have now demonstrated that, by adjusting certain chemicals used during the growth process, they can precisely control the physical and mechanical properties of the resulting plant material, such as its stiffness and density.
They also show that, using 3D bioprinting techniques, they can grow plant material in shapes, sizes, and forms that are not found in nature and that can’t be easily produced using traditional agricultural methods.
“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” says lead author Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate.
Though still in its early days, this research demonstrates that lab-grown plant materials can be tuned to have specific characteristics, which could someday enable researchers to grow wood products with the exact features needed for a particular application, like high strength to support the walls of a house or certain thermal properties to more efficiently heat a room, explains senior author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories.
Joining Beckwith and Velásquez-García on the paper is Jeffrey Borenstein, a biomedical engineer and group leader at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. The research is published today in Materials Today.
To begin the process of growing plant material in the lab, the researchers first isolate cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. The cells are cultured in liquid medium for two days, then transferred to a gel-based medium, which contains nutrients and two different hormones.
Adjusting the hormone levels at this stage in the process enables researchers to tune the physical and mechanical properties of the plant cells that grow in that nutrient-rich broth.
“In the human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits emerge. In the same way, by changing the hormone concentrations in the nutrient broth, the plant cells respond differently. Just by manipulating these tiny chemical quantities, we can elicit pretty dramatic changes in terms of the physical outcomes,” Beckwith says.
In a way, these growing plant cells behave almost like stem cells — researchers can give them cues to tell them what to become, Velásquez-García adds.
They use a 3D printer to extrude the cell culture gel solution into a specific structure in a petri dish, and let it incubate in the dark for three months. Even with this incubation period, the researchers’ process is about two orders of magnitude faster than the time it takes for a tree to grow to maturity, Velásquez-García says.
Following incubation, the resulting cell-based material is dehydrated, and then the researchers evaluate its properties.
They found that lower hormone levels yielded plant materials with more rounded, open cells that have lower density, while higher hormone levels led to the growth of plant materials with smaller, denser cell structures. Higher hormone levels also yielded plant material that was stiffer; the researchers were able to grow plant material with a storage modulus (stiffness) similar to that of some natural woods.
Another goal of this work is to study what is known as lignification in these lab-grown plant materials. Lignin is a polymer that is deposited in the cell walls of plants which makes them rigid and woody. They found that higher hormone levels in the growth medium causes more lignification, which would lead to plant material with more wood-like properties.
The researchers also demonstrated that, using a 3D bioprinting process, the plant material can be grown in a custom shape and size. Rather than using a mold, the process involves the use of a customizable computer-aided design file that is fed to a 3D bioprinter, which deposits the cell gel culture into a specific shape. For instance, they were able to grow plant material in the shape of a tiny evergreen tree.
Research of this kind is relatively new, Borenstein says.
“This work demonstrates the power that a technology at the interface between engineering and biology can bring to bear on an environmental challenge, leveraging advances originally developed for health care applications,” he adds.
The researchers also show that the cell cultures can survive and continue to grow for months after printing, and that using a thicker gel to produce thicker plant material structures does not impact the survival rate of the lab-grown cells.
“Amenable to customization”
“I think the real opportunity here is to be optimal with what you use and how you use it. If you want to create an object that is going to serve some purpose, there are mechanical expectations to consider. This process is really amenable to customization,” Velásquez-García says.
Now that they have demonstrated the effective tunability of this technique, the researchers want to continue experimenting so they can better understand and control cellular development. They also want to explore how other chemical and genetic factors can direct the growth of the cells.
They hope to evaluate how their method could be transferred to a new species. Zinnia plants don’t produce wood, but if this method were used to make a commercially important tree species, like pine, the process would need to be tailored to that species, Velásquez-García says.
Ultimately, he is hopeful this work can help to motivate other groups to dive into this area of research to help reduce deforestation.
“Trees and forests are an amazing tool for helping us manage climate change, so being as strategic as we can with these resources will be a societal necessity going forward,” Beckwith adds.
This research is funded, in part, by the Draper Scholars Program.
Written by Adam Zewe, MIT News Office
Paper: “Physical, mechanical, and microstructural characterization of novel, 3D-printable, tunable, lab-grown plant materials generated from Zinnia elegans cell cultures”
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