Fossil reveals 'cute' baby dinosaur's skull features

A rare titanosaur embryo was discovered with its skull preserved in 3 dimensions.

dinosaur embryo skull
Kundrát et al., Current Biology, 2020
  • Researchers have uncovered what the facial features of a baby titanosaurus embryo looked like using cutting-edge imaging technology.
  • This in the first-ever discovery of a 3D embryonic titanosaurian sauropod skull.
  • The embryo reveals that titanosaur babies had binocularly focused vision in the front of the head rather than on each side, retracted openings on their snout, and a single horn in the front of their head.

Researchers have uncovered what the facial features of a baby titanosaurus looked like in the first-ever discovery of an almost completely intact embryonic titanosaurian sauropod skull.

The discovery

3D scan of fossil

Kundrát et al., Current Biology, 2020

About 20 years ago, a dinosaur egg was illegally smuggled into the United States from Argentina. Unbeknownst to the egg-runner, it contained one of the most exquisitely preserved skulls of a dinosaur embryo ever found. (The egg has since been returned to Argentina.)

"The preservation of embryonic dinosaurs preserved inside their eggs is extremely rare," said John Nudds, study co-author and palaeontology professor at The University of Manchester, in a statement. "Imagine the huge sauropods from 'Jurassic Park' and consider that the tiny skulls of their babies, still inside their eggs, are just a couple of centimetres long."

The embryo comes from a group of dinosaurs named titanosaurian sauropods, who are known for their long necks and tails, and tiny heads. While their species also lay claim on the largest terrestrial animal ever known to have existed, they start off small enough to fit inside an egg roughly the size of that of an ostrich. The uncovered titanosaur skull is about the size of a table grape.

Understanding the species origins may give scientists a better idea of how they grew and developed. But the task hasn't been easy. Twenty-five years ago researchers struck a bonanza when they uncovered a Cretaceous-era nesting ground of these dinosaurs in Patagonia — a site where titanosaurian sauropods once laid their eggs 80 million years ago. But unfortunately, the eggs the researchers found in the area were flattened, thus lacking key information only a 3 dimensional skull could give them.

This latest finding, detailed in a paper published last week in the journal Current Biology, is 3-D enough to contain all those revealing details. Including the befuddling facial features that titanosaur babies apparently wore in their first days of life.

Inside the egg

Kundrát et al., Current Biology, 2020

The research team used synchrotron microtomography, a cutting edge imaging technology, to view the embryo's bones, teeth, and soft tissues, like the calcified remains of the baby's brain case and jaw muscles.

While the prehistoric long-necked beasts have always been depicted in their adult forms, the high tech images reveal that the babies actually had some unusual physical traits. They had binocularly focused vision in the front of the head rather than on each side, retracted openings on their snout, and a single horn in the front of their head. The researchers have speculated that the horn may have helped them crack out of their shell at birth and assisted these vulnerable newborns in defending themselves. There is currently no evidence of parental care in this dinosaur species, so the baby titanosaurus would have likely been fending for itself for food and protection.

"You could call it a unicorn baby dinosaur, because it has a single horn on its head. But unlike the mythical unicorn, where the horn is on the forehead, this dinosaur has a small bumpy horn at the tip of its snout," University of Edinburgh vertebrate paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, who wasn't involved in the new study, told the New York Times. "This little embryo is one of the cutest dinosaurs I've seen, and at the same time, one of the weirdest looking."

As the dinosaur matured, its head and face would have morphed into the features we imagine them as today; their vision likely changed as their eyes shifted laterally to the sides of the head. Their snout and face may have grown faster than their braincase to get rid of the horn. This is all speculation, of course, as more examples are needed.

"We expect that the specimen will become one of the most important fossils in the study of reproduction and development of the gigantic quadrupedal dinosaurs," said Martin Kundrát in an email to CNN, study author and head of the PaleoBioImaging Lab at Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Slovakia.

Though the researchers acknowledge that it is possible that they stumbled upon an entirely new species, the embryo is the most similar to Tapuiasaurus — a titanosaurus dinosaur that lived in Brazil between 66 million and 100.5 million years ago.

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It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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