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Scientist resurrects ancient trilobites by 3D-printing them in metal

As engineers find new innovating ways to use 3D printers, scientists have found the emerging technology as a perfect means to resurrect long extinct animals by casting them in metal.

As engineers find new innovating ways to use 3D printers, scientists have found the emerging technology as a perfect means to resurrect long extinct animals by casting them in metal.

University of Chicago assistant professor Dr. Allan Drummond, who is a biochemistry and human genetics researcher, studying everything from cell adaptation to the multi-million-year evolution of the species, is determined to print a trilobite in all its glory.

“We find their shells fossilized everywhere,” Drummond said. “They’re museum staples – but we rarely see what they really looked like, with all of their soft tissues (legs, antennae, gills) intact.”

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“The first step was to look at as many trilobites as possible and choose one,” he recalls. “I’ve always loved these fossils, but the moment they turned from fossils, into living organisms for me, was when I saw the new generation of preparations displayed at Chicago’s Field Museum.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In my mind, trilobites were flat, if beautiful, primitive creatures. Seeing those preparations made it clear how not-flat and not-primitive they were.”

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According to Nerdist.com, Drummond needed to narrow down options and eliminate any trilobite groups with delicate spines, which many of them had. It would have been too easily broken, as well as any that were too simple to print with extensive detail.

He settled on Ceraurus, a genus that roamed the Earth in the middle to upper Ordovician, roughly 470-445 million years ago.

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“Ceraurus is ideal,” he said. “They have long yet substantial genal [head segement] and pygidial [tail segment] spines, complex thoracic armor, gorgeous curves, unmistakable trilobite form. Enough detail to warrant 3D printing, enough structural solidity to survive it.”

The next step was for Drummond to draw the creature by hand to provide a guide for the 3D model, which was laborious and very detail-oriented work over many hours.

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According to Nerdist, the model was printed using a form printer, which works by using a laser to cure tiny dots of liquid plastic resin into solid form. Every part in the print had to be cut from its base, polished, and reassembled – first in plastic, then cast in steel, bronze, and eventually silver.

“Using liver of sulfur, a poorly understood quasi-alchemic brew, I oxidized these pieces, creating a patina, then polished the patina off of the raised parts,” said Drummond.

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Drummond has not stopped with extinct trilobites. He recently modeled a scarab beetle, and an incredibly detailed dividing yeast cell.

Images via Nerdist

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