October 25, 2005
SCI E NC E
THE ART OF BODY PRESERVATION
University researchers use plastination technique to prevent body tissue from decaying
By Matt Beneke U For the Daily
In a basement laboratory room of the sprawling Uni-
versity Hospital is a doctor in surgical scrubs and
mask, hunched over a leg, working methodically
with a scalpel. Three students sit across the room from
him, watching intently as he scrapes deposits of fat tis-
sue from in between the muscle, tendon and bone of the
dissected limb and places it on a steel tray beside him.
The doctor doesn't worry about anesthesia or moni-
toring vital signs - the leg is no longer attached to any
person. The leg won't be used for walking anymore,
but instead it will be preserved as an anatomical speci-
men; it's in the process of becoming plastinated.
The art and science of human body preservation has
been a work-in-progress for thousands of years and con-
tinues at the University with a technique called plasti-
nation, which preserves a body with plastic.
The most famous ancient preservers were the Egyp-
tians. They used natural chemicals to accelerate the
dehydration of body tissues that, in conjunction with the
naturally dry environment, helped preserve the body for
the afterlife. Other ancient preservers include the Chin-
cohorro tribe in Chile, whose preservation techniques
predate Egyptian ones
by thousands of years.
But the modern-day
Body technique of tissue
plastination, has only
preservation recently emerged.
Developed in the
notfor 1970s by Gunther von
Hagens, a German
rituals, anatomist, the method
he pioneered picks up
where the Egyptians
clean, odor-and Chinchorros left
off, but for a very dif-
ferent purpose clean,
Ion -term preservation of human
tissue for use in ana-
stU y of tomical study and edu-
human The problems with
the more simple and
tissue for the ancient art of dehy-
drating tissue is that it
purpose of will eventually decay
in even the most habit-
conducting able environments and,
in the end, it doesn't
science really look like its for-
mer natural self.
And the problem
with wet-chemical fix-
ation - such as that creepy two-headed pig floating in
a formalin-filled jar on the shelf above your high school
biology teacher's desk - is that it not only smells ter-
rible and makes a mess, but also causes specimens to
lose their color and texture in time, making it difficult
to discern fine tissue structures.
The answer to both of these problems is known to any-
one who has seen the movie "The Graduate": plastics.
But before getting into that, there first needs to be a
body and the know-how. The University is one of the
few places in the world to have a human plastination
It was established in 1989 by anatomy Prof. Roy
Glover, and has been directed since 2004 by anatomy
Prof. Ameed Raoof. The mission of the Plastination
Laboratory, according to Raoof, is "to promote the edu-
cation of anatomical studies."
The University receives bodies through donations
from its Anatomical Donation Program.
Those agreeing to be "permanently preserved" are
the candidates for the plastination process in the Plas-
According to Raoof, a typical plastination procedure
starts when the body is received from a funeral home
and injected with a large dose of formalin, a chemical
that replaces body fluids within the tissues and keeps
it from decaying. This is necessary because it can take
up to eight weeks for a full dissection of the body.
The extent and method of the dissection depends on
ABOVE: Gross anatomy lecturer Heping Zhao works on a human leg that will be plastinated. BELOW: Undergraduate students paint parts of a human brain
while anatomy prof. Ameed Raoof looks over their work.
the educational need: be it a leg for a kinesi-
ology class or a cerebrum for a neuroanatomy
Fat, which has high water content and any
other undesirable tissues - like membranes
surrounding the cerebrum - are carefully
Once the specimen has been dissected to the
anatomist's satisfaction, the tissue is soaked in
a series of successively graded concentrations
of chilled acetone, an organic solvent character-
ized by a low boiling point.
The chilled acetone replaces body fluids and
the formalin to dehydrate the tissue, similar
to the concept of the Egyptians use of natural
natron salts. This takes anywhere from two
days to three weeks, depending on the size of
the specimen, and then it is ready for the plasti-
The acetone-soaked tissue is then set in a pool
of liquefied plastic, and the air within the cham-
ber is evacuated with a vacuum pump.
For those who haven't let the "ideal gas law"
evaporate from their minds, a drop in pressure
will cause a corresponding drop in the tempera-
ture needed to reach a boiling point of a liquid.
Here, the acetone evaporates from the tissue
allowing the liquid plastic to fill its place within
the tissue structure.
Raoof said that the introduction of plastic into
the tissues can take up to eight weeks, once again
depending upon the size and density of the speci-
men and plastination method used.
Then it is prepared and painted appropriately
for the study it is intended for. The painting is
to either make up any tissue discoloration or to
add information to the model - such as making
arteries red and veins blue.
There does not seem to be any limit to what
can be created - in a rack of finished specimens
within the Plastination Lab, there lay a stack
of half-inch-thick cross-sectioned torso slices
next to a negative impression of the interior of
Will plastinated specimens become the status
quo and completely replace tissue specimens bot-
tled in liquid formalin? Raoof said that medical
school curriculum will always require students to
dissect real body parts, and not just plastinated
Plastination is just the latest chapter in the
ongoing saga to develop the perfect method
of body preservation. The reasons might have
changed drastically in a historical context, but
it seems certain that efforts to preserve human
bodies will persist.
Arma eddon in 2029?
Not li ely -asteroid
will barely miss Earth
Scientists hope incoming
space rock wi/I shed light on
origins of the so/ar system
By Ryan Anderson
Daily Staff Reporter
Mark your calendar for April 13, 2029. An asteroid
more than a thousand feet across will swing so close to
Earth that it will be visible even without binoculars.
This once-in-a millennia event will give University
scientists a chance to answer long-standing questions
about these solar system wanderers.
Named Apophis, after the Egyptian spirit of evil and
destruction, the asteroid was discovered in December of
2004 by astronomers at the University of Arizona.
of any near-Earth asteroid on record. At a distance of just
22,300 miles, it will be as close to the Earth as communi-
cations satellites and much closer than the moon.
This extremely close pass gives scientists who study
asteroids an unprecedented opportunity. A team of
researchers led by Daniel Scheeres, a University associ-
ate professor of aerospace engineering, has suggested a
mission to place instruments on Apophis. They hope to
determine whether the asteroid is a monolithic rock or a
"rubble pile" held together only by gravity.
"By properly placing instruments on the asteroid
Apophis during its flyby of the Earth in 2029, we should
be able to measure and determine these and many other
properties of that asteroid," Scheeres said.
"The gravity field of the Earth will cause the spin
rate of the asteroid to change and should cause surface
and sub-surface failures across the asteroid," Scheeres