You have a sculpture, an intricate piece of modern art, covered in bulges and blisters. Your task is to weave a cover for it. The fit must be exact. You have to fill in every dent and wrap around every lump. Here’s the catch: you have to make this faultless shroud from a single piece of string that must automatically weave itself into the right three-dimensional shape.
This is the challenge that Sarel Fleishman, Timothy Whitehead and Damian Ekiert from the University of Washington have just overcome. Their “sculpture” is a protein called haemagglutinin, or HA, which sits on the surface of flu viruses. Their “shroud” is another protein designed to perfectly fit onto the contours of HA and neutralise it. They have found a way of fashioning these designer proteins on a computer – a feat that could make it easier to create the next generation of anti-flu drugs.
These cells look like fairly typical bone cells. They appear to be connected to each other by thin branch-like projections and are embedded in a white matrix of fibres. At their centres are dark red spots that are probably their nuclei. But it’s not their appearance that singles out these extraordinary cells – it’s their source. You’re looking at the bone cells of a dinosaur.
They come from an animal called Brachylophosaurus, a duck-billed dinosaur that lived over 80 million years ago. By looking at one of its thigh bones, Mary Schweitzer from North Carolina State University has managed to recover not just bone cells, but possible blood vessels and collagen protein too. Their presence in the modern day is incredible. Time usually isn’t kind to such tissues, which decay and degrade long before harder structures like bones, teeth and armour are fossilised.
This is the second time that Schweitzer’s team have recovered ancient protein from dinosaur bones. Two years ago, they pulled off a similar trick with collagen protein from the bones of Tyrannosaurus rex. That discovery was a controversial one, and many scientists were justly sceptical. Last year, one group reinterpreted the so-called soft tissues as nothing more than bacterial biofilms, “cities” of bacteria not unlike the plaque on your teeth or slime on moist rocks.
Now, Schweitzer has returned with another volley in the debate, and one which considerably strengthens the case for preserved Cretaceous proteins. From the bone of Brachylophosaurus, she has uncovered tissues that bind to antibodies designed to target collagen and other proteins not found in bacteria, including haemoglobin and elastin. And her experiments were duplicated by independent researchers from five different laboratories. It seems that her Tyrannnosaurus discovery was far from a one-hit wonder.