Jurassic Park, One Step Closer

Well, not really. Or not exactly. But if you’re into dinosaurs, this is pretty neat. There now appears to be confirmation that paleontologists have discovered soft tissue from a Tyrannosaurus Rex that died roughly 68 million years ago.

The discovery itself dates back to 2005. But it was and is so contrary to every received opinion about what can possibly be preserved in fossils that the findings were questioned. Apparently, until now. Read this report for the full details. But the gist is that iron in blood, under certain fossilization conditions, acts with special binding properties that prevent proteins from degrading.

“The problem is, for 300 years we thought, ‘Well, the organics are all gone, so why should we look for something that’s not going to be there?’ and nobody looks,” she said.

The obvious question, though, was how that soft, pliable tissue could survive for millions of years. In a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Schweitzer thinks she has the answer: iron.

Iron is an element present in abundance in the body, particularly in the blood, where it is part of the protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Iron is also highly reactive with other molecules, so the body keeps it locked up tight, bound to molecules that prevent it from wreaking havoc on the tissues.

After death, though, iron is let free from its cage. It forms minuscule iron nanoparticles and also generates free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules thought to be involved in aging.

“The free radicals cause proteins and cell membranes to tie in knots,” Schweitzer said. “They basically act like formaldehyde.”

Formaldehyde, of course, preserves tissue. It works by linking up, or cross-linking, the amino acids that make up proteins, which makes those proteins more resistant to decay.

So the obvious question for anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park is, if there’s soft tissue, shouldn’t there be at least fragments of DNA? The answer seems to be, maybe.

Importantly, Schweitzer and her colleagues have figured out how to remove the iron from their samples, which enables them to analyze the original proteins. They’ve even seen chemical reactions consistent with the presence of DNA, though Schweitzer is quick to note that she and her colleagues haven’t proven that DNA is actually present. Even if there is DNA, researchers would have to show that it’s dinosaur DNA rather than contamination.

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