Stone soup; or, extracting protein fragments from T. rex bones

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Science has an article today on extracting and sequencing proteins from T. rex bones, and I'm already getting email from people wondering whether this is believable, whether it challenges the stated age of dinosaurs, whether this means we can soon reconstruct dinosaurs from preserved genetic information, and even a few creationists claiming this is proof of a young earth. Short answers: it looks like meticulous and entirely credible work to me, these fossil bones are really 68 million years old, and it represents a special case with limits to how far it can be expanded, so scratch "reassemble dinosaur from fragments" off your to-do list.

Continue reading "Stone soup; or, extracting protein fragments from T. rex bones" (on Pharyngula)

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I was under the impression that the material recovered was collagen, a very durable, stable protein. That wouldn’t include genetic material, so no “Jurassic Park” this week, boys and girls.

Actually, it makes perfect sense that someday we’d see something like this.

Imagine the living bone, a complicated matrix of nooks and crannies surrounded by a mineral framework. It spends years soaking in dinosaur innards, and every little space is filled with some kind of organic material.

Then the beastie dies.

Imagine further that this is one of the “lucky” bones that gets covered up quickly, so it doesn’t fall apart on the surface, and there it sits for a jillion years.

Basically, eventually, it becomes entombed in cement. Think Jimmy Hoffa here.

While we can easily imagine water migrating in, and bacterial having their merry way, it’s still a pretty big leap to imagine that every single little bit of calcium might be leached out, or every single organic molecule (even the unappetizing ones) is digested by anaerobic bacteria, which are then in turn, digested by more bacteria, etc, etc, all of which eventually leaches out with all the calcium.

After all, for many bones, there really aren’t many other methods working to break down and scavenge the original materials, they’re just sitting in rock, being ignored.

Surely, some small fragments of the molecules that comprised the original animals are still in some of these bones. Some of these bones are gigantic with plenty of places to hide. It just had to wait till we got sufficiently good at looking for tiny scraps.

Say we did find Jimmy Hoffa inside a building foundation, somewhere. After 30 years, he’s probably be in bad shape. Assume water got in, as did bacteria, but soon enough, everything that could get eaten under those conditions, did. What’s left is sealed in one place in a block of concrete, that prevents the fragments from wandering and keeps everything in one place.

Even in a gajillion years, it’s not unlikely some alien biologist could look at the dust left in the cavity and tell something about the constituent parts of homo unionbossius.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on April 13, 2007 12:54 PM.

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