Science/Tech

Microscopic Life Found In Dinosaur Bones

In the movie “Jurassic Park,” Dr. Richard Levine, along with other characters, encountered modern-day dinosaurs cloned form ancient DNA taken from a fossilized mosquito. Given the logic of the movie science behind it, this is a very interesting premise, especially in a sci-fi setting.

But that’s where it ends, since this can’t happen in real life. That’s because over time, DNA breaks down. It’s simply not stable enough to stay intact for millions of years, even when placed in a fossilized condition. And so, when scientists went to look for preserved collagen (because protein itself isn’t strong enough to stay for millions of years) in dinosaur fossils, they weren’t expecting ancient DNA they can use to recreate the reptilian giants. However, what they found equally surprised them: huge colonies of bacteria living undisturbed in the bones.

"This is breaking new ground -- this is the first time we've discovered this unique microbial community in these fossil bones while they're buried underground," said lead author Evan Saitta, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum. "And I would say that it's another nail in the coffin in the idea of dinosaur proteins getting preserved intact. My Ph.D. work focused on how soft tissues fossilize and how these materials break down. Some molecules can survive in the fossil record, but I suspect proteins can't; they're unstable on those timescales in the conditions of fossilization.”

While still at the University of Bristol, Salta wrote his doctoral thesis on organic molecules in fossils. According to him, there has been an increase in interest in supposed dinosaur proteins, leading Salta to decide to independently verify if there is still collagen in the fossils.

To do this, he had to work in very sterile conditions. But the findings were more than rewarding.

"We found non-radiocarbon dead organic carbon, recent amino acids, and DNA in the bone -- that's indicative that the bone is hosting a modern microbial community and providing refuge," Saitta said. The bacteria present are not common bacteria as well. "Thirty percent of the sequences are related to Euzebya, which is only reported from places like Etruscan tombs and the skin of sea cucumbers, as far as I know,” he explained.

According to Saitta and his team, this discovery can help advance molecular paleontology, which is a field that’s still emerging.

Dinosaur Skeleton A Camptosaurus (L) and an Allosaurus skeletons are displayed on November 13, 2018 at the Artcurial auction house in Paris. Volcanoes and an asteroid are most likely the reasons for dinosaur extinction. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

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