Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Scientists With a Bone to Pick, a Mystery to Solve, Turn to MSU Lab November 27, 2007 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 11/27/07

Paleontologist Mary Schweitzer says MSU's Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory is invaluable to her research. (Photo: Kelly Gorham)
Paleontologist Mary Schweitzer says MSU's Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory is invaluable to her research.

On a day destined to shatter the record for the number of Montanans complaining about the heat, Mary Higby Schweitzer and Nancy Equall were cool, but hardly calm, in a Montana State University laboratory.

"Oh my gosh. Look at this. It's beautiful," Schweitzer exclaimed as she and Equall, a technical and research staff member in MSU's Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory, examined fragments of a thigh bone that belonged to an 80-million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur belonging to the hadrosaur family.

Just three weeks earlier, the dinosaur femur had rested in the Judith River Formation of northern Montana, buried under a deep layer of sandstone. Now its fragments emerged as black-and-white images on a computer screen. Equall was operating the Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope that produced those images. Beside her was Schweitzer, a Helena native and former MSU graduate student who studied with famed MSU paleontologist Jack Horner. Schweitzer, now a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, is known world-wide for her discoveries in soft dinosaur tissues.

"Oh, Nancy. That's beautiful," Schweitzer said. "Wow."

The bone fragments, magnified hundreds of times, looked at times like shadowy caves, then thorny trees and flood-flattened grass. For a few moments, they seemed to contain two tiny crop circles or maybe an early logo for MasterCard.

Schweitzer was more interested in significance, however, than the odd images that result from enlarging fossils beyond recognition. She seemed to find it, but said she would have to use several instruments and various methods to test her initial observations. For now, she wanted to take a quick look to see what she had, and ICAL's equipment made it possible.

Fossils, not rocks

Zhiyong (Jahson) Suo, research scientist in ICAL. works on the biological materials extracted from a dinosaur fossil. (Photo: Kelly Gorham)
Zhiyong (Jahson) Suo, research scientist in ICAL. works on the biological materials extracted from a dinosaur fossil.

Lay people have long thought of dinosaur fossils as essentially rocks. They believed fossils were like dense chunks of stone with no real structure, Schweitzer said. The work done by Horner at MSU's Museum of the Rockies and other colleagues began to change that view, however. And development of state-of-the-art instruments like the ones at ICAL helped validate the idea that fossils are more bone than rock. Such technology enabled scientists to peer inside fossils, examine them on a molecular scale and come up with discoveries like the ones Schweitzer made in the past few years from an Eastern Montana dinosaur named Catherine.

Formerly known as B. rex, the oldest Tyrannosaurus rex on record has yielded 68-million-year-old protein, soft tissue, blood vessels and reproductive tissue virtually identical to that normally found in the bones of female birds during their egg-laying cycles. Schweitzer described all those finds in the journal, Science, and those findings vaulted her toward the top of her profession. But Schweitzer emphasized that she didn't work alone. Three of the five MSU researchers who collaborated on her latest paper in "Science," work in ICAL. Recep Avci is director of the lab. Zhiyong (Jahson) Suo is a research scientist. Fernando Teran Arce was a postdoctoral researcher at ICAL before becoming a research scientist at the Center for Nanomedicine, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Chicago.

"This facility is a huge, huge benefit to my research," Schweitzer said of ICAL. "It's a huge asset to this university. Huge."

John Priscu, an MSU polar biologist who specializes in Antarctica, said his research team has used ICAL for the past five years to examine deep ice samples from Antarctica and Greenland. While working with Avci, his team observed the first microorganisms from Lake Vostok in Antarctica. While working with David Mogk, the team learned the mineral makeup of Vostok sediment particles. Mogk, an MSU geology professor who helped establish ICAL, and Avci were listed as co-authors of the resulting papers. ICAL images were published in "Science" and popular magazines such as "Smithsonian" and "American Scientist."

"Recep took the final AFM (Atomic Force Microscope) image of a microbe from Lake Vostok, which has received accolades from scientists around the world," Priscu added. The image was of the highest quality and was the first of a microbe from Lake Vostock, he explained. The lake is located 2.5 miles below the surface of the Antarctic sheet.

"However, Recep likes to tell people that it is the worst AFM image that he has taken," Priscu said. "He is way too modest."

ICAL started out in 1992 in the basement of AJM Johnson Hall with one instrument left behind by a previous operator. It was a broken-down Auger 595 spectrometer, part of Jerry Lapeyre's CRISS facility. Its "guts were all over the floor," Avci said.

Avci got the Auger 595 to work and went on to use it for analyzing surfaces. MSU then bought a Scanning Electron Microscope, funded in part by Murdock Trust, and has continued to add a major instrument every couple of years. ICAL is now located on the top floor of the Engineering/Physical Sciences building and contains two Scanning Electron Microscopes, including a Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope; Powder X-ray diffraction, Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer, an Atomic Force Microscope, and an array of other instruments that offer high-resolution imaging and spectroscopy. Total worth is estimated at $4 million, with funding coming from grants, MSU's Office of the Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer; MSU's Thermal Biology Institute, Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials, and ICAL user fees.

"Everything is under one roof," Avci said. "That's very important for people coming in here."

ICAL is unique because it gives researchers one destination instead of many for imaging or chemical analysis, Avci continued. Other universities or institutions may own the same instruments as ICAL, but they tend to scatter them in different rooms or buildings. A Scanning Electron Microscope may be in one department, for example, and an Atomic Force Microscope in another. Scientists go from room to room to carry out their research. They deal with a variety of supervisors.

ICAL on the other hand, lets researchers stay in one room. They can "hop from one instrument to another without dealing with many different people," Avci said.

A sense of ownership is another benefit of ICAL, Avci said. Trusted researchers receive lab keys, and the lab is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Researchers can be trained to run the ICAL instruments themselves or watch others do it.

"We are proud of that," Avci said. "People feel like they own this without owning it. That's a very important impression to give people. People don't like micromanagement."

A gem of a lab

ICAL's Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope produces an exciting find for Nancy Equall, standing; Kamlynn Thomas, left; and Melody Bergeron. (Photo: Kelly Gorham)
ICAL's Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope produces an exciting find for Nancy Equall, standing; Kamlynn Thomas, left; and Melody Bergeron.

"It's an incredible lab for Montana. I can't say enough good about it," said Dick Berg, an expert on Montana sapphires and senior research geologist with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, a department of Montana Tech.

Berg has used ICAL since its inception to help him identify the source and composition of sapphires. By examining minerals on the surface of sapphires and the chemical composition of those minerals, he can tell if a sapphire comes from the Butte/Deer Lodge area or Rock Creek west of Philipsburg. The images Equall gives him are so good that he used them in at least five recent publications or projects, Berg said.

Equall said sapphires and fossils are among her favorite items to scan. Among the most unusual have been ear stones from fish, a slime-covered wrench and buckets of goo. Potential clients who want to learn about ICAL see print-outs showing images of bacteria on an ant, slime from a Yellowstone National Park spring and the surface of salmonella.

"People come in here with certain expectations," Equall commented. "People usually go away thrilled. That's probably the best thing."

ICAL is devoted to education, service and in-house research, so its clients range from MSU faculty and students to public and private users from around Montana and across the United States. MSU-based clients come from the Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials, Thermal Biology Institute, and departments from biology to engineering. Approximately 200 undergraduate students use the lab every year for research projects, K-12 outreach and class demonstrations.

National clients come from the American Museum of Natural History, the Johnson Space Center, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, and the Idaho National Laboratory. ICAL's Montana clients include Arcomac, Big Sky Laser and Luzenac America, to name a few.

Mogk, the geology professor who helped analyze Antarctic samples, said most companies couldn't afford to buy all the equipment or hire the personnel they find at ICAL. "But they can come here, solve a problem and go back to work in the corporate world, which is a huge benefit.

"The great thing about the lab is you can start an experiment on one instrument and then either verify or confirm it with another instrument on the same sample on the same day just by walking across the lab," Mogk added.

Schweitzer did exactly that on the day she and Equall were examining dinosaur fragments. Taking a break from the Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope, Schweitzer crossed the room to check other fragments in petri dishes. She had added organic acid to the fossils and wanted to see how much of the minerals remained.

"These are all tools," Schweitzer said, pointing to the instruments around the room. "It's the way analytical research is going. This facility provides us with the opportunity to provide our students with time on state-of-the-art equipment, and helps students at MSU to be competitive with anyone out there."

Schweitzer admitted she could have easily stayed in North Carolina and analyzed her fossils there. But returning to Montana every summer allows her to visit the sites that produce her fossils and work along side people she has known for years. Schweitzer said ICAL scientists not only know how to operate their sophisticated instruments, but they analyze what they see, suggest alternate approaches and develop new techniques. She trusts them.

"I'm very confident of the results I can get from this institution," Schweitzer said.