Preserved Dinosaur Protein Is 195 Million Years Old

By Gemma Tarlach | January 31, 2017 10:00 am
A slice of the 195 million year old rib of the dinosaur Lufengosaurus reveals vascular canals, many of which contain hematite, probably derived from the dinosaur's blood when it was alive. Credit: Robert Reisz.

A slice of the 195-million-year-old fossilized rib of Lufengosaurus reveals vascular canals, many of which contain hematite, probably derived from the dinosaur’s blood when it was alive. Credit: Robert Reisz.

We know the chances of finding dinosaur DNA are virtually nil. Despite recent advances, the oldest genetic material of any animal that researchers have successfully extracted and sequenced is about 700,000 years old (Note: still impressive. Most impressive). DNA degrades and gets contaminated by bacteria and other gunk; it’s unlikely researchers will push back that ancient DNA landmark much further.

But what if I told you they’ve found something potentially even better than DNA to give us insights into the Age of Dinosaurs?

A close-up of the Lufengosaurus rib fossil shows vascular canals that in life contained blood vessels. Some of the canals are now filled with hematite, probably from the dinosaur's blood 195 million years ago. Credit: Robert Reisz.

A close-up of the Lufengosaurus rib fossil slice shows vascular canals that in life contained blood vessels. Some of the canals are now filled with hematite, probably from the dinosaur’s blood 195 million years ago. Credit: Robert Reisz.

Published today in Nature Communications, researchers managed to find evidence of preserved protein in the fossilized rib of a 195-million-year-old dinosaur called Lufengosaurus.

Protein such as collagen has been found in dinosaur bones before, but what’s exciting about this find is both the technique and the age: This fossil is more than 100 million years older than previous protein-preserving finds (including one published just last week).

Old Protein, New Method

Despite all the dinosaur bones paleontologists are adding to the fossil record annually, soft tissue specimens are few and far between. They require very particular conditions to have a chance of being fossilized, such as type of sediment and how quickly it covers the carcass.

Even then, soft tissues on their way to being preserved for posterity can get derailed by bacterial contamination and other problems. Fossilized soft tissue specimens are also more prone to damage or even destruction by the methods traditionally employed to study them.

An artist's rendering of Lufengosaurus, an Early Jurassic dinosaur first unearthed in China in the 1930s and now seen in a new light, so to speak, thanks to chemical signatures found in a fossilized rib. Credit: Debivort/Wikimedia Commons.

An artist’s rendering of Lufengosaurus, an Early Jurassic dinosaur first unearthed in southwestern China in the 1930s and now seen in a new light, so to speak, thanks to infrared chemical signatures found in a fossilized rib. Credit: debivort/Wikimedia Commons.

The team working on a rib of Lufengosaurus employed in situ synchrotron radiation-based Fourier transform is anyone still reading this infrared microspectroscopy (SR-FTIR) which, in addition to taking a really long time to type, is a non-destructive way to look inside a fossil and identify molecular structures based on their infrared absorption band signatures.

Whew. Okay, now that I’ve used up all my big words for the day, possibly the week, basically they peeped the fossil’s innards with crazy-fine resolution and a filter that allowed them to identify particular organic remains. In this case, collagen, which is crucial for skin and connective tissue.

Using a second method, the researchers also identified hematite, which they believe was derived from the animal’s blood.

The presence of the hematite is important because the team believes it may have allowed the collagen to be preserved. Once the blood broke down and hematite formed, it may have effectively sealed off vascular canals — channels in the bones which, in life, include blood vessels — and protected the collagen within from the outside world.

And no, researchers can’t clone a dinosaur from collagen, so please stop emailing me and asking about that, but collagen can tell us a great deal about the dinosaur and its evolutionary relationship to other animals. Today’s find advances paleontology on a molecular level, which is in itself pretty exciting.

A section of the Lufengosaurus rib cut lengthwise reveals dark hematite particles — derived from the dinosaur's blood — along a vascular canal. Other dark spots beyond the canal walls are lacunae, home to adult bone cells in life and now hosting more hematite particles. Credit: Robert Reisz.

A section of the Lufengosaurus rib seen in a lengthwise slice reveals dark hematite particles — derived from the dinosaur’s blood — along a vascular canal. Other dark spots beyond the canal walls are lacunae, home to adult bone cells in life and now hosting more hematite particles. Credit: Robert Reisz.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: dinosaurs, fossils, protein
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  • David Antonio Zavala Gutiérrez

    It’s really an amazing issue that nature offers a way to search even more closer to those animal beings that dwelled millions of years ago. It would be as impressive as to know how they proliferated and gained the earth for over an entire period of time: the jurassic and the cretacic would be better described with these findings

  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/100000059254552/ David Cousins

    anyone REALLY think protein could survive that long? Obviously not….meaning the long age chronology has been all WRONG. None of these fossils have been anywhere close to even a million years old.

    • Jim Dodds

      …and what makes you an expert?

      • Jon A Fourre

        A PhD in a discipline usually works

        • P R Owen

          Right on!

    • robert2365

      Says the reader who never passed a science course.

      • M

        Attended possibly? Damned CLAS education.

    • Adam The Great

      Oh are they about 8,000 years old and noa forgot to load them on the the ark?

    • Michael L. Hoenig

      I’ll believe you and sing your praises if you can show me ONE fossil out of sequence in Earth’s strata.

      Idiot.

  • stargene

    “synchrotron radiation-based Fourier transform is anyone still reading this infrared microspectroscopy (SR-FTIR)”…It’s easier to say “supercallifrag..”
    or “Parangaricutirimicuaro!” Good article. I suspect that these results, starting with the earlier discovery of collagen etc. in T-rex bones, are just
    scratching the surface. And that much more organic preservation will be
    found across the board, from vertebrates to invertebrates.

    • Bahuwa

      Well said…

  • Peter Freier

    “in situ synchrotron radiation-based Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (SR-FTIR)”? Big f*****g deal! I know what

    in situ
    synchrotron radiation-based
    Fourier transform
    infrared
    microspectroscopy
    (SR-FTIR)

    mean, and don’t really consider myself overeducated. Mulling over this long, detailed (and apparently, terrifying) phrase should not be the punchline or highlight of this article! I read through it several times, and survived the experience! We’ve got clods with no science education in positions of great power in this country, but we don’t have to give into their proud and willful ignorance!

    • Bahuwa

      Isn’t that true? I had the same reaction when I read the article too. It seems we as a race are happy to aim for mediocrity nowadays.

      • Charlton Blake

        As a uneducated reader, I enjoyed a thorough chuckle. Then again reading these elitist comments. Lol

        • Michael L. Hoenig

          As a fairly well educated lifelong electronics tech (since age 12, in ’67) I find the “elitist” comments almost as humorous as yours…

          Thanks for the belly laughs, Charlton!

  • Thomas Buzzi

    Wonder if they can get DNA from the cream filling in a 175 million year old Twinkie?

    • Jon A Fourre

      It will still be edible! Polysorbate B preservative is truly wonderful.

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