The classic tale of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs once again walked the earth has tickled the fancy of many a reader. Dinosaur DNA preserved in a fossilized mosquito was used to bring these giants back to life. But in real life, it was previously thought that there was no possible way for organic materials to be preserved, that they often degraded within 1 million years if not rapidly attacked by bacteria and other organisms specialized in decomposition. Skin and other soft tissues, such as blood vessels, would never withstand the test of time. Or would they…?
|T. rex skeleton at Palais de la découverte. Image by David Monniaux at Wikimedia|
In 1992, Mary Schweitzer was staring through a microscope at a thin slice of fossilized bone, but this bone had something unusual. There were small red disks located in this tissue and each had a small dark circle in the middle resembling a cell nucleus, the command center of the cell. And these little disks very much resembled the red blood cells of reptiles, birds, and other modern-day vertebrates (excluding mammals). But it wasn’t possible, was it? These cells came from a 67 million-year old T. rex. And it was commonly accepted that organic material never lasted that long.
|Comparison of red blood cells. Image by John Alan Elson at Wikimedia|
This opened a huge controversy in the scientific community, but Schweitzer persisted. She consulted with her mentor, Jack Horner, a leading scientist in the paleontology field, and he told her to prove to him that they weren’t red blood cells. Schweitzer took the challenge and began to run some tests.
The first clue to these mysterious scarlet-colored cells potentially being red blood cells was the fact that they were located within blood vessel channels of the dense bone that were not filled with mineral deposits. And these microscopic structures only appeared inside the vessel channels, as would be true of blood cells.
Schweitzer then began to focus on the chemical composition of these puzzling structures. Tests showed that these “little red round things” were rich in iron, and that the iron was specific to them. Iron is important in red blood cells as it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body. And the elemental make-up of these little red round things differed greatly from the surrounding bone and sediment around them.
The next test was looking for heme, a small iron-containing molecule that gives blood its characteristic color and allows hemoglobin proteins to transport oxygen throughout the body. Schweitzer tested for this through spectroscopy tests, which measure the light that a given material emits, absorbs, and scatters. Her results from these tests were consistent with what one would find in heme, suggesting that this molecule existed in the dinosaur bone she was analyzing.
Schweitzer then conducted a few immunology tests to see if she indeed had found hemoglobin in these ancient bones. Antibodies are produced when the body detects a foreign substance that could potentially be harmful. Extracts from the dinosaur bone were injected into mice to see if antibodies were produced to ward against this new organic compound. When these antibodies were then exposed to hemoglobin from turkeys and rats, they bound to the hemoglobin. This suggested that the extracts that caused an antibody response in the mice included hemoglobin. This in turn suggested the T. rex bone contained hemoglobin, or something very similar.
Through years of research, Schweitzer has shown that what was once believed to be impossible is indeed true. Soft tissues, blood cells, and proteins can withstand the test of time. This process is possibly done through iron binding to amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins) and thereby preserve them. Research is advancing in this area, but as of yet, no DNA has been found to bring Jurassic Park to life. But for the avid believer, don’t get up hope yet. Perhaps one day we truly could walk amongst dinosaurs.
Fields, Helen. (May 2006). Dinosaur Shocker. Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine.
Pappas, Stephanie. (13 Nov. 2013). Mysteriously Intact T. Rex Tissue Finally Explained : DNews. DNews. Live Science.
Schweitzer, M. (2010). Blood from Stone Scientific American, 303 (6), 62-69 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1210-62