Researchers uncover mechanisms for molecular preservation in fossils

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Researchers from UC Berkeley, North Carolina State University and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, or UW Stout, co-authored a study that found mechanisms of molecular preservation in fossils.

The researchers looked at the fossil of Tyrannosaurus rex USNM 555000 to learn about what is being preserved within fossils and what processes allow for this preservation. The study was a result of more than a decade of collective work between the researchers.

“Decades ago were the first cases of bones being mineralized and structures that looked like blood vessels being liberated from them,” said lead author, UW Stout lecturer and UC Berkeley alumna, Elizabeth Boatman. “For decades after that, no one really looked at them, they basically just tossed them aside because there was kind of this gap where there was no way to explain how they could be preserved and every belief that they couldn’t be preserved.”

Paleontologist Mary Schweitzer from North Carolina State University said in an email that while she was preparing the bones brought back from the field, she noticed peculiarities in the internal regions and odor of USNM 555000, one of the most complete T. rex fossils.

Boatman began to postulate that the fossil tissue could be preserved after Schweitzer published her work on blood vessels and cellular structures in the late 2000s.

The first few projects Schweitzer and Boatman worked on together used Schweitzer’s previous research as a starting point. Boatman became more interested in how these tissues were preserved while finishing graduate school at UC Berkeley.

“You usually think that you follow the evidence, right?” Boatman said. “But sometimes really, there’s this question of believing in something before you can see it.”

The researchers worked together to connect what they already knew about preservation to the end product being observed in the T. rex specimen. Their investigation spanned topics ranging from diabetes to food science to material science.

The two mechanisms the study suggests are responsible for the preservation of blood vessels are Fenton chemistry and glycation, processes by which proteins create crosslinks. These processes are also seen in humans through aging and diabetes.

Aside from showing that blood vessels can be preserved in fossils, Boatman also predicts that the techniques they used in their research will become more well-known within the scientific community.

“We should all remember, fossils are not ‘rocks’. They were once part of the living ecosystems of our planet, and they have a lot to teach us,” Schweitzer said in the email. “As our technologies continue to grow, our understanding of molecular changes molecules and tissues see during fossilization will also increase, and this has enormous potential for our future!”

Contact Emma Rooholfada and Tate Coan at [email protected].