New molecular research on dinosaur fossils by scientists at N.C. State University could provide insight on how the creatures are related to today’s birds and reptiles, and how they survived for millions of years during periods of global cooling and warming.
Researchers Elena Schroeter and Mary Higby Schweitzer used a technique to dissolve dinosaur bones while preserving ancient collagen and other proteins within them. What they found overturns a centuries-old belief among palaeontologists that those types of tissues can’t survive millions of years of fossilization.
“For the last 25 years, we’ve been fighting an uphill battle against people who say this can’t be done,” said Schweitzer, a professor of biological sciences.
Schroeter, a postdoctoral researcher, and Schweitzer, a professor of biological sciences, found the proteins in bones from a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil and an 80 million-year-old, duck-billed dinosaur called a Brachylophosaurus.
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Their most recent work involves the protein collagen found in the Brachylophosaurus bone. Collagen is common in most living things but has molecular differences unique to each species, said Schroeter, a postdoctoral researcher. Because collagen is so common, the ancient samples can be compared with those from today’s birds and reptiles.
By looking at those tiny differences in the collagen’s molecular makeup, paleontologists will be able to determine which dinosaur species are related and how they relate to creatures on Earth today, she said. In the past paleontologists have had to rely on bone shapes and skeletons to determine similarities between species.
The most recent research, published in the Journal of Proteome Research, comes on the heels of several discoveries from Schweitzer’s lab at N.C. State. Last year, it published a paper about how dinosaur blood vessels can be found in fossilized bones.
But Schroeter said that fans of the movie Jurassic Park will be disappointed. There’s no way the discoveries will lead to cloning an ancient dinosaur.
Collagen and the other proteins the lab found don’t contain DNA, which is required to replicate an organism. Instead, finding proteins like collagen is like finding one page of a cookbook that is indecipherable.
“You can’t cook what’s in it, because you can’t read the page,” Schroeter said.
But examining the molecular structures of dinosaurs could lead to discoveries on how humans can adapt to global warming or cooling, Schweitzer said, “because dinosaurs already went through it.”
In 2009, the team published its first paper showing that it found collagen and other proteins in the ancient bones, but some in the paleontology community believed that their samples could have been contaminated.
For the most recent paper, Schroeter and Schweitzer went overboard disassembling and cleaning each piece of the imaging equipment, called a mass spectrometer, to make sure the samples would be accurate.
During its research on collagen, the team also found other fossilized molecular structures had survived in the fossil including hemoglobin, keratin and microbes.
Now that the researchers have proven that proteins can be found in fossils, research could determine all sorts of thing, such as when feathers on dinosaurs allowed creatures to fly, or how woolly mammoths survived ice ages, Schweitzer said.
“We won’t know the limits,” Schweitzer said. “Because for so many years we had been told this was impossible.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-621-0964, @ReporterCioffi