How coral revolutionized human bone repair.
In the late 1960s, a pair of scientists at Pennsylvania State University decided to use a new, high-powered microscope to take a closer look at these remarkable coralline structures. What the two saw would launch an interdisciplinary team on a research odyssey from the shallow, tropical waters of the South Pacific to the modern hospital operating room, where their discovery is now helping surgeons repair patients’ damaged bones.
In 2012, the members of that team were given Golden Goose awards, an annual prize initiated by a United States Congressman to honor seemingly offbeat research that has paid unexpected dividends. “It turns out that most of science is still happenstance, and many good discoveries are not planned,” said honoree Rodney White of the serendipity that aided the team’s efforts.
The journey began with Jon Weber, a marine geochemist who specialized in studying the carbonate spines, shells, and skeletons of marine invertebrates, such as starfish, sea urchins, and coral. He collected many of his samples himself, scuba-diving throughout the South Pacific and hauling his specimens back to his lab in Pennsylvania. There, Weber would crush his samples to a fine powder and analyze their chemical makeup. He was curious how the composition of marine skeletons varied across species and whether it was shaped by environmental factors, such as water temperature, salinity, and depth. Weber published a number of papers on these questions throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but the arrival of a new piece of laboratory equipment sent his research off in an unexpected direction.
In the mid 1960s, Penn State became one of the first institutions in the U.S. to acquire a scanning electron microscope. Traditional microscopes tend to produce flattened, two-dimensional images, but scanning electron microscopes allow scientists to produce micrographs with a large depth of field—and to get a better view of their samples’ three-dimensional structures.
The coral skeletons looked like blocks of three-dimensional mesh, or extremely well aerated Swiss cheese.
“There were a lot of questions that just couldn’t be answered without that kind of equipment,” said Eugene White, a materials scientist who helped set up and run Penn State’s microscope, in an interview before his death last year. “It was the first commercially built electron microscope in this part of the country. It was very popular. People from all around the East Coast would come to see what it could do.”
White worked with these visiting researchers, some of whom were from major companies, getting a close-up view of many manmade materials. A few years after the microscope arrived on campus, White’s friend Jon Weber started showing up at the Material Research Lab with his collection of undersea skeletons. Weber and White put the specimens under the microscope, beginning with sea urchin spines and moving on to corals. They were amazed by what they saw. The coral skeletons were composed of a dense network of pores, entirely shot through with small, interconnected holes. They looked like blocks of three-dimensional mesh, or extremely well aerated Swiss cheese. “We were really fascinated by the physical structure of these corals,” White said. “The structures were so uniquely different from anything we had ever worked with.” The corals didn’t resemble any of the synthetic materials that White had previous examined, but they did look, the researchers eventually realized, an awful lot like human bone…