‘It’s (far from) alive!’ research breathes new life into fossil studies

The study of fossils is hard – literally.

‘Hard-bodied’ tissue samples, such as shells and bones, are the most common fossils scientists work with simply because that is what is more readily available to them.

But exceptionally preserved fossil materials, or ‘soft-bodied’ fossils like eyes, digestive tracts, and skin provide the only real opportunity to study fossilized nervous systems, organ structure, and cellular development.

Soft-bodied organisms rarely are represented in fossil specimens because they degrade much faster than hard-bodied tissue samples.  And the elusiveness of soft-bodied fossils has left large gaps in the study of exceptional preservation itself, making it tough to understand the physical-chemical conditions under which exceptional preservation occurs.

This is what prompted two Harrisburg University professors to team with students to launch a unique research project dubbed: It’s (far from) alive!

Recipients of a HU Presidential Research Grant of $15,470, HU Earth Systems Science Professor Dr. Michael Meyer teamed with Biology and Ecology Professor Dr. Christine Proctor and students to begin work that aims to understand the timing and role of clay minerals in exceptional preservation.

The ongoing study started in November, and the team plans to conduct petrographic investigations and employ micro-analytical techniques, in situ three-dimensional visualization, and reconstruction of fossils from the Kinzers Formation in southcentral Pennsylvania. The Kinzers Formation, named for geologic formations at a railroad cut in Kinzers, Lancaster County, preserves fossils dating to the Cambrian Period.

One HU student is prepping work on the project, and additional students will join the team as the weather warms this year.

Dr. Michael Meyer and Dr. Christine Proctor

“This project is a good opportunity to involve students and give them exposure to a real-life project of scale and scope,” Dr. Meyer said. “Earth material characteristic are essential to know in any earth and environmental job. Additionally, SEM and other nanoscale material science analyses are becoming more commonplace; students with that experience are highly sought after. The requirement that students present their work at a regional GSA meeting is a great chance for the students to put their findings together in a professional way and present it.”

The multidisciplinary approach of the ongoing project will require a broad set of skills in fields such as: Earth and environmental sciences, advanced manufacturing (nano-scale characteristics), biology, chemistry, and physics. It also supports innovative research that supports local and regional needs. It also holds the potential to lead to a larger study in other parts of the region.

“This project also will grow our relationships with local resources such as the Pennsylvania State Museum and state Geologic Survey, while establishing new relationship with partners like Yale University and the Smithsonian,” Meyer said. “The more working relationships we have with institutions like these, the greater resources our students have for academic and career building.”

About Harrisburg University

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to more than 6000 students from 103 countries. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email connect@HarrisburgU.edu.