It might not be quite as dramatic as Jurassic Park, but it is certainly groundbreaking work. Researchers have confirmed that they have been able to extract original proteins from an 80-million-year-old dinosaur fossil.
It was a few years back that the team of researchers had first claimed that they managed to isolate proteins, in the form of collagen, from the 80-million-year-old fossil, but this was met with much skepticism from the scientific community, who simply did not believe that organic molecules could survive that long. But last year, the same group did manage to confirm the presence of protein in a 3.8-million-year-old ostrich egg shell, which spurred the team to try the dinosaur fossil once again.
One of the main criticisms of their earlier work had been that the positive result for the protein was probably an artifact of contamination from the equipment used. So this time, the researchers took no chances. They took apart the mass spectrometer they planned on using to test their samples piece by piece, soaking every bit in methanol to make sure they were all completely clean, before reassembling the machine to be used.
“Mass spectrometry technology and protein databases have improved since the first findings were published,” explained Elena Schroeter, who co-authored both the original and new study published in the Journal of Proteome. “We wanted to not only address questions concerning the original findings, but also demonstrate that it is possible to repeatedly obtain informative peptide sequences from ancient fossils.”
Using a fossilized femur from a duck-billed dinosaur called Brachylophosaurus canadensis, they took samples from inside the bone. The researchers managed to identify eight protein sequences, two of which matched those that were recorded during their original study, proving that their initial work was indeed correct. Not only that, but after comparing the sequences to other, living, creatures, they found that three of the sequences were also similar to those found in alligators and birds.
While this should not come as a surprise, considering crocodylians and birds are dinosaurs’ closest living relatives, it opens up a whole range of possibilities. The ability to extract original molecular data from animals that have been dead for tens of millions of years could allow for the researchers to determine the evolutionary relationships between long-dead animals. The groundbreaking research could even mean a shift from paleontology to molecular biology.
“Our purpose here is to build a solid scientific foundation for other scientists to use to ask larger questions of the fossil record,” said Mary Schweitzer, another of the authors. “We've shown that it is possible for these molecules to preserve. Now, we can ask questions that go beyond dinosaur characteristics.”