Scientists recover T. rex soft tissue
70-million-year-old fossil yields preserved blood vessels
WASHINGTON - A 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil dug out of a hunk of sandstone has yielded soft tissue, including blood vessels and perhaps even whole cells, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday. Paleontologists forced to break the creature's massive thighbone to get it on a helicopter found not a solid piece of fossilized bone, but instead something looking a bit less like a rock.
When they got it into a lab and chemically removed the hard minerals, they found what looked like blood vessels, bone cells and perhaps even blood cells.
"They are transparent, they are flexible," said Mary Higby Schweitzer of North Carolina State University and Montana State University, who conducted the study.
She said the vessels were flexible and in some cases their contents could be squeezed out.
"The microstructures that look like cells are preserved in every way," added Schweitzer, whose findings were published in the journal Science.
"Preservation of this extent, where you still have this flexibility and transparency, has never been seen in a dinosaur before." Feathers, hair and fossilized egg contents yes, but not truly soft tissue.
Studying the soft tissues may help answer many questions about dinosaurs. Were they cold-blooded like reptiles, warm-blooded like mammals, or somewhere in-between? How are they related to living animals?
"If we can isolate certain proteins, then perhaps we can address the issue of the physiology of the dinosaur," Schweitzer said.
Of course, the big question is whether it will be possible to see dinosaur DNA. "We don't know yet. We are doing a lot in the lab now that looks promising," Schweitzer said.
To make sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing, Schweitzer, a biologist by training, compared the Tyrannosaur samples with bone taken from a dead ostrich. She chose an ostrich because birds are thought to be the closest living relatives of dinosaurs and ostriches are big birds.
Both the dinosaur and ostrich blood vessels contained small, reddish brown dots that could be the nuclei of the endothelial cells that line blood vessels.
Taking the minerals out of both ostrich bone and the Tyrannosaur bone — a simple experiment that can be duplicated by anyone using a chicken bone, for example, and vinegar — yielded flexible fibers. Microscopic examination showed what look like bone cells called osteocytes in both.
The finding certainly shows fossilization does not proceed as science had assumed, Schweitzer said. Since the discovery, she has found similar samples of soft tissue in two other Tyrannosaur fossils and a hadrosaur.
The fossil was dug up out of Montana's Hell Creek Formation, a rich source of fossils.
Paleontologist Jack Horner said it was encased in 1,000 cubic yards (metres) of sandstone. "It's a fantastic specimen," he told the briefing.
"The specimen was very far away from road, (so) everything had to be done with a helicopter." The field team used standard procedure as they excavated the bones, wrapping them in plaster jackets before transporting them..
This particular dinosaur fossil was too big to lift and they reluctantly cracked a thighbone.
Usually paleontologists put preservatives on fossils right away, but Schweitzer has been trying to find soft tissue in dinosaur fossils, so this one was left alone.
Horner said he hoped museums around the world would start cracking open bones and looking for soft tissue in their fossils.
"Dinosaurs are relatively rare and we certainly think of Tyrannosaurus rex as being really rare — although it really isn't — so people tend not to want to cut holes into the bone or cut them in half," he said.
"But to study the cellular and molecular structures of these things you have to do that." The "good stuff," he said, is on the inside.
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NOTE: These secular scientists will not promote the fact that this was not an isolated incident. There have been several discoveries of decaying dinosaur specimens. They are usually referred to as ‘miracles of science’ and are quickly buried (no pun intended). Creation Studies Institute.
T. rex fossil has 'soft tissues' – BBC News World Edition
Dinosaur experts have extracted samples of what appear to be soft tissues from a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil bone.
The US researchers tell Science magazine that the organic components resemble cells and fine blood vessels.
In the hotly contested field of dino research, the work will be greeted with acclaim and disbelief in equal measure.
What seems certain is that some fairly remarkable conditions must have existed at the Montana site where the T. rex died, 68 million years ago.
Normally when an animal dies, worms and bugs will quickly eat up anything that is soft.
Then, as the remaining bone material gets buried deeper and deeper in the mud, it gets heated, crushed and replaced by minerals - it is turned to stone.
The form, and nothing else, is all that is left of the original. On the outside, the hindlimb fossil designated MOR (Museum of the Rockies specimen) 1125 has this appearance.
But when Dr Mary Schweitzer, of North Carolina State University, dissolved away the minerals, she found something extraordinary inside.
She discovered transparent, flexible filaments that resemble blood vessels. There were also traces of what look like red blood cells; and others that look like osteocytes, cells that build and maintain bone.
"This is fossilised bone in the sense that it's from an extinct animal but it doesn't have a lot of the characteristics of what people would call a fossil," she told the BBC's Science In Action programme.
"It still has places where there are no secondary minerals, and it's not any more dense than modern bone; it's bone more than anything."
Dr Schweitzer is not making any grand claims that these soft traces are the degraded remnants of the original material - only that they give that appearance.
She and other scientists will want to establish if some hitherto unexplained fine-scale process has been at work in MOR 1125, which was pulled from the famous dinosaur rocks of eastern Montana known as the Hell Creek Formation.
"This may not be fossilisation as we know it, of large macrostructures, but fossilisation at a molecular level," commented Dr Matthew Collins, who studies ancient bio-molecules at York University, UK.
"My suspicion is this process has led to the reaction of more resistant molecules with the normal proteins and carbohydrates which make up these cellular structures, and replaced them, so that we have a very tough, resistant, very lipid-rich material - a polymer that would be very difficult to break down and characterise, but which has preserved the structure," he told the BBC.
But if there are fragments, at least, of the original dinosaur molecules, their details could provide new clues to the relationship between T. rex and living species, such as birds.
Inevitably, people will wonder whether the creature's DNA might also be found. But the "life molecule" degrades rapidly over thousand-year timescales, and the chances of a sample surviving from the Cretaceous are not considered seriously.
"I actually don't work with DNA and my lab is not set up to do that," said Dr Schweitzer. "Our goal is more to look to see what we can find with respect to the proteins that are coded by the DNA.
"To a large degree, most of the chemical studies that have been done suggest proteins are more durable than DNA and they have almost the same kind of information because they use DNA as their template."
Dr Collins added: "I would agree that proteins are the molecules to go for - they are the major macromolecules in bone.
"We've got some very interesting research coming out from a number of labs looking at stable isotopes (different forms of the same atom) in bones and clearly information about diets which comes from such isotopes may now be amenable from these dinosaur materials."
However, he cautioned that the great age of MOR 1125 may put such detail beyond the investigating scientists.