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Electron Microscopy and Analytical X-ray Characterization of Compositional and Nanoscale Structural Changes in Fossil Bone


The nanoscale structure of compact bone contains several features that are direct indicators of bulk tissue mechanical properties. Fossil bone tissues represent unique opportunities to understand the compact bone structure/property relationships from a deep time perspective, offering a possible array of new insights into bone diseases, biomimicry of composite materials, and basic knowledge of bioapatite composition and nanoscale bone structure. To date, most work with fossil bone has employed microscale techniques and has counter-indicated the survival of bioapatite and other nanoscale structural features. The obvious disconnect between the use of microscale techniques and the discernment of nanoscale structure has prompted this work.

The goal of this study was to characterize the nanoscale constituents of fossil compact bone by applying a suite of diffraction, microscopy, and spectrometry techniques, representing the highest levels of spatial and energy resolution available today, and capable of complementary structural and compositional characterization from the micro- to the nanoscale. Fossil dinosaur and crocodile long bone specimens, as well as modern ratite and crocodile femurs, were acquired from the UC Museum of Paleontology.

Preserved physiological features of significance were documented with scanning electron microscopy back-scattered imaging. Electron microprobe wavelength-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (WDS) revealed fossil bone compositions enriched in fluorine with a complementary loss of oxygen. X-ray diffraction analyses demonstrated that all specimens were composed of apatite. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) imaging revealed preserved nanocrystallinity in the fossil bones and electron diffraction studies further identified these nanocrystallites as apatite. Tomographic analyses of nanoscale elements imaged by TEM and small angle X-ray scattering were performed, with the results of each analysis further indicating that nanoscale structure is highly conserved in these four fossil specimens.

Finally, the results of this study indicate that bioapatite can be preserved in even the most ancient vertebrate specimens, further supporting the idea that fossilization is a preservational process. This work also underlines the importance of using appropriately selected characterization and analytical techniques for the study of fossil bone, especially from the perspective of spatial resolution and the scale of the bone structural features in question.

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