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Synchrotron Focuses on New Hominid Fossil

Add the high-energy x-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to the soft brushes and delicate drills paleontologists use to examine fossil finds. Cynthia Graber reports

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a remarkably well-preserved skeleton of what might be a new species of an ancient hominid that lived almost 2 million years ago. [See Kate Wong, http://bit.ly/dehy9Q]

The bones were found in 2008. This February, they were analyzed by one of the highest-tech tools available, the synchrotron at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The device uses beams of x-rays a trillion times brighter than medical x-rays, and produces images at the atomic level.

Paleontologist Paul Tafforeau developed a technique to use the synchrotron to study fossils even still partially entombed—with resolution at the micron scale.

Fossils of the age and significance of the new find are rarely moved. But discoverer Lee Berger oversaw the careful transport of the skull and skeleton fragments from South Africa to France for a two-week intensive study.

The preliminary analysis has turned up fossilized insect eggs, left by ancient bugs that may have fed on the decomposing corpse. There’s also a region of low-density that could be a section of the hominid’s brain. The researchers hope that the synchrotron ultimately supplies what used to be impossible-to-get details about our distant relative.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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