Scientists have discovered ancient proteins as old as 195 million years old inside the bone of a plant-eating dinosaur. They also found traces of mineral that likely came from the blood of the early Jurassic creature.
Soft Tissues Rarely Found In Fossil Remains Of Dinosaurs
Soft tissues can provide researchers new insights into the biology of the prehistoric dinosaurs and their evolution. Unfortunately, soft tissues are rarely preserved during fossilization when the bones and teeth of the animals become slowly transformed into rock. Skeletons and sometimes the claws are often what remain of these prehistoric animals.
Extracting them from fossils is also difficult since there is the possibility that the delicate and tiny fragments of soft tissue, if there are any left, can be damaged. Robert Reisz, from the University of Toronto in Canada, and colleagues, however, managed to come up with a solution to this.
For the study published in the journal Nature Communications on Jan. 31, the researchers reported finding what they think is collagen in a fossil rib of a herbivorous dinosaur known as Lufengosaurus. The creature lived millions of years ago in what is now southwestern China.
Instead of extracting the tissue using chemical methods, the researchers analyzed it where it was. Reisz and colleagues used the methods Raman spectroscopy and synchrotron radiation Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (SR-FTIR) to probe into the chemical makeup of the sample.
The researchers fired lasers at the sample so they can measure the chemical signature from the specimen without the risk of destroying the ancient protein and contaminating it with materials from modern sources. Researchers said that the rib absorbed infrared light with wavelengths that match the collagen found in modern-day animals.
Dinosaur's Blood May Have Helped Preserved The Protein
Besides collagen, researchers also found fragments of other iron-rich proteins within the walls of the blood vessels that run through the rib bones. Reisz and his team think that the remains of the dinosaur's blood may have played a role in preserving the creature's collagen for nearly 200 million years. The iron in the blood likely served as an antioxidant that prevented the molecules with reactive oxygen components from breaking down and destroying the collagen.
"Aggregated haematite particles about 6∼8 μm in diameter are also identified inside the vascular canals using confocal Raman microscopy, where the organic remains were preserved," the researchers wrote in their study.
"We propose that these particles likely had a crucial role in the preservation of the proteins, and may be remnants partially contributed from haemoglobin and other iron-rich proteins from the original blood."
Although the amount of protein the researchers detected is miniscule, they said that the collagen has plenty of detailed information that could shed light on the biology of dinosaurs.
"If we can find these in lots of dinosaurs, we can perhaps use them to build better family trees of dinosaurs, and also to better understand the physiology and metabolism of dinosaurs," said Stephen Brusatte, from the University of Edinburgh, who is not involved in the research.