An ancient dinosaur fossil in Berlin recently got a new lease on life with the help of a 3D printer.

Researchers used a computed tomography (CT) scanner and a 3D printer to create an exact replica of the dinosaur vertebrae without having to go through the risky process of separating it from the sediment in which it was originally found or the plaster casing in which excavators stored it.

In doing so, they were able to trace the fossil's origin to the Halberstadt excavation, a major dig from 1910 to 1927 in a clay pit south of Halberstadt, Germany.

"The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal," said Dr. Ahi Sema Issever, a radiologist at Berlin's Charité University Hospital who headed the project.

Researchers performed CT scans on the unidentified fossil with a 320-slice multi-detector system. The different attenuation, or absorption of radiation, through the bone compared with the surrounding material enabled clear depiction of a fossilized vertebral body.

In addition, the CT study provided valuable information about the condition and integrity of the fossil, showing multiple fractures and destruction of the front rim of the vertebral body.

The identity of the fossil, including information about where it had been found, had been lost in the chaos of World War II.

After the war, researchers rediscovered the fossil under the bombed-out rubble of the Museum für Naturkunde, a major natural history museum in Berlin. Matching it up to the museum's records proved extremely difficult until researchers were able to get a good look at the fossil without running the risk of harming it in the process.

"The digital dataset and, ultimately, reproductions of the 3D print may easily be shared, and other research facilities could thus gain valuable informational access to rare fossils, which otherwise would have been restricted," Issever said. "Just like Gutenberg's printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil."