The 3D-printed dinosaur fossil (right) made from CT scans of the fossil encased in plaster (left) Radiological Society of North America

Uses for 3D printers are more widespread than ever, but researchers in Germany are expanding 3D-printing territory even further. According to Live Science, for the first time ever, scientists from the Department of Radiology at Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin have recreated dinosaur fossils from blueprints made by computed tomography, or CT, scans.

As DotMed noted, scientists have used 3D printers to recreate fossils in the past – you can even buy your own 3D-printed dinosaur skull on Etsy – but never has a fossil been duplicated from a bone still enclosed in sediment. The fossil, which belonged to a long-necked herbivorous dinosaur, was actually encased in a plaster jacket used to store the fossil in a museum basement, but the technology could easily be used to scan fossils buried in sediment as well. Scientists say the technique could provide a noninvasive means of creating accurate copies of delicate dinosaur fossils without having to dig them up first.

"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,” Dr. Ahi Sema Issever, from the Department of Radiology and a lead author of the study, said in a statement about the 3D-printed dinosaur fossils.

Issever says the most groundbreaking aspect of her technique of digitally printing 3D dinosaur fossils is that it doesn’t harm the fossil in the process. CT scanning and digitally printing the bones is also much less time-consuming than traditional methods of preparing fossils for analysis. Fragile dinosaur bones can easily crumble or crack during excavation; the risk of damaging a rare fossil during CT scanning, researchers say, is minimal.

According to the Huffington Post, the project came about after paleontologists from the Museum of National History in Berlin approached Issever and asked for her help in identifying some old and poorly labeled fossils. The fossils, preserved in plaster jackets more than 100 years ago, were nearly destroyed when the museum’s east wing was bombed during World War II, causing the basement where the dinosaur bones were stored to collapse.

Some of the fossils were obliterated during the bombing. The ones that made it out unscathed were in disarray. That’s where Issever stepped in. Using CT scanners – the same kind used to diagnose sick patients – Issever and her colleagues were able to create digital blueprints of the mystery fossils.

The Huffington Post noted that the scans laid bare a dinosaur vertebra that was 8 inches long and 6 inches wide. It came from a Plateosaurus dinosaur, a Late Triassic period herbivore that reached 33 feet in length.

The ability to scan and 3D-print dinosaur fossils could have wide-ranging applications for not only paleontologists but also educators and private collectors alike. "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 that otherwise would have been restricted," Issever said.