Friday, December 6, 2013

Collagen: 68,000,000 Years Old, and Still Soft

A nearly-complete fossil found in Canada, and collagen extracted from a dinosaur's bone, fascinate me. Your experience may vary.
  1. Young Chasmosaurus Belli: An "Incredibly Rare" Fossil Find
  2. After 68,000,000 Years, Still Soft: "Cool Beans"
  3. "Controversial" Soft Tissue, Six Years Later

Fossils, Goo, and News

(from Nobu Tamura, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Chasmosaurus belli, an artist's reconstruction.

One of this week's items really is news. The young Chasmosaurus was uncovered in 2010, but won't be in the University of Alberta's Dino 101 until January.

The other two cover research published in 2007. Confirmation that goo found in a dinosaur bone was from the dinosaur was news to me, so I don't have a problem with including it. Particularly since we now have a good explanation for how it stayed soft for 68,000,000 years.

Living with Change

The world has been changing since its beginning. We live in an era when what we know about the world is changing, too: rapidly.

Back in my 'good old days,' scientists thought that dinosaurs were ectothermic, a five-dollar word for "cold blooded." We've learned more since then, and a consensus seems to be that many dinosaurs regulated their internal temperature, like mammals. Make that like birds, since today's critters with feathers are what happened when some dinosaurs survived a mass extinction.

Looking around, we've learned that physical constants may not be as constant as we thought, that the universe has been changing since its beginning, and that ours may not be the only 'universe.'

I like learning about this astounding creation: even if, particularly if, it means learning that previous assumptions don't work. Not everyone feels this way, which is nothing new.

Taking the World "as is"

Back in the days when European academics began catching up on what had been happening in the rest of the world, some folks said that we might not be standing on the only world.

Others didn't like this idea, and said it couldn't be true: because Aristotle said so. That's when the Catholic Church stepped in. Ever since 1277, Catholics haven't been allowed to say that there can't be many worlds.

I don't have a problem with that. Taking reality "as is" seems more sensible than assuming that God must go along with our preferences.

Not Perfect: Yet

I've said this before: We live in a vast, ancient, and evolving creation. Telling God that we disapprove does not make sense. Admiring the Almighty's work does. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

My faith doesn't demand that I keep up with what we're learning about the universe, but it isn't threatened by knowledge. An honest and ethical search for truth cannot be in conflict with faith. (Catechism, 159)

As a Catholic, I have to believe that God is creating everything: and is infinitely greater than creation. Phenomena we observe are secondary causes, and that's sort of another topic. (Catechism, 279, 300-305)

My actions are secondary causes too, since I would not exist if God didn't want me to. That doesn't make me a puppet, since I have free will, and that's yet another topic. (Catechism, 1730-1742)

The world we live in is a nice place, but it's not perfect. All of creation is in a "state of journeying," toward perfection. Part of our job is working with God on this cosmic project, and that's still more topics.  (Catechism, 302, 1928-1942)

1. Young Chasmosaurus Belli: An "Incredibly Rare" Fossil Find

(From, via CTV News, used w/o permission.)
"Philip Currie displays the near-complete skeleton of a baby Chasmosaurus, a relative of the Triceratops. ("
"Rare near-complete baby dinosaur fossil unearthed in Alberta"
CTV News (December 2, 2013)

"A near-complete skeleton of a baby dinosaur has been unearthed in Alberta's Dinosaur Provincial Park.

"The 1.5-metre-long fossilized Chasosaurus belli, a relative of the Triceratops, was discovered by a team of researchers at the University of Alberta and The Royal Tyrrell Museum.

" 'It's pretty exciting. It's a super specimen and I'm very lucky to be the guy that found it,' Philip Currie, a paleobiologist at the University of Alberta, told the school. 'There's no question this is one of the very best ones I've ever found.'...

"...Its skeleton is fully intact minus the arms, which Currie believes likely eroded away by a sinkhole several thousands of years ago.

" 'I think (the dinosaur) may have just gotten trapped out of its league in terms of water current,' Currie told LiveScience.

"He said finding the intact baby dinosaur fossil is incredibly rare. 'The big ones just preserve better. They don't get eaten, they don't get destroyed by animals.'..."
Maybe I'm being picky, but there's a typo in the second paragraph. It makes more sense if the fossilized dinosaur is a Chasmosaurus belli: spelled with an "m."

Chasmosaurs were North America's bison in the Upper Cretaceous: in the sense that they were big grazing animals.

Even if they were alive today, nobody would mistake chasmosaurs for American bison. Those dinosaurs grew to be half again as long as a bison, and weren't mammals. Anyway, North America didn't look like it does today, grass wouldn't show up for another 7,000,000 years, except for a sort of rice, and that's still another topic.

(From Christopher R. Scotese, used w/o permission.)

More to Learn

This particular Chasmosaur was probably about three years old when it died. Scientists will almost certainly learn more about the Chasmosaurus belli species from this fossil, about Chasmorsaurs in general, and maybe about how plants and animals of the Late Cretaceous lived.

That's exciting, or interesting at any rate: even if they don't discover something unexpected about the world as it was 72,000,000 years back.

More than you probably want to know about Chasmosaurs:

2. After 68,000,000 Years, Still Soft: "Cool Beans"

(From Science, via Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
"A tiny blob of stretchy brown matter, soft tissue from inside the leg bone, suggests the specimen had not completely decomposed (© Science)"
"Dinosaur Shocker"
"Probing a 68-million-year-old T. rex, Mary Schweitzer stumbled upon astonishing signs of life that may radically change our view of the beasts that once ruled the earth"
Helen Fields, Smithsonian Magazine (May 2006)

"After 68 million years in the ground, a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Montana was dug up, its leg bone was broken in pieces, and fragments were dissolved in acid in Schweitzer's laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. 'Cool beans,' she says, looking at the image on the screen.

"It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive....
Learning about conditions on Earth's moon, 4,000,000,000 years back, is easier than studying the biology of dinosaurs. Just about anything organic gets eaten, absorbed, and recycled in short order.

Everyday experience with food spoilage and tons of fossilized evidence encouraged the assumption that we'd never see soft dinosaur tissues.

My guess is that we'll learn that dino goo is as rare as critters that thrive in near-boiling water or acid: which isn't as rare as we thought.

Speaking of acid, that's how Schweitzer got that T. rex biopsy.

"It's great science"

"...Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. 'The reason it hasn't been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don't go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,' says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. 'It's great science.' The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both...."
(Helen Fields, Smithsonian Magazine)
Science can be methodical observation, like the pitch drop experiment, or taking inventory, like the work Carl Linnaeus did in the 1700s. Systema Naturae isn't exciting reading: but it was a huge step in our understanding of life on Earth.

As it turns out, Holtz was right: isolating soft tissue from a long-extinct dinosaur's bones is "great science." Studying a tissue sample from a dinosaur isn't the same as studying a living animal: but it's a whole lot more data than we had just a decade back.

First, though, scientists had to demonstrate that the goo really was from a dinosaur: not something that grew there later. This isn't being stubborn: it's making sure that we don't mix assumptions and facts.

Petrified Preferences; Hope, and a Future

"...Meanwhile, Schweitzer's research has been hijacked by 'young earth' creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn't possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it's not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer's data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as 'a complete and total Christian.' On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'..."
(Helen Fields, Smithsonian Magazine)
I was glad to see Helen Fields call folks who wanted Schweitzer's research to support their preferences "creationists." Schweitzer's self-identification as a Christian probably helped.

Deeply-rooted stereotypes notwithstanding, many Christians do not see a 13th century Protestant bishop's educated guess as the final word in cosmology.

Some of us have minds as rigid as any fossilized bone: but many don't. Maybe the word's getting around. (March 6, 2010)

Here's that Old Testament verse, a slightly different translation into my native language:
"For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope."
(Jeremiah 29:11)
I think it's prudent to remember that change happens, change can be good, and that's almost another topic.

3. "Controversial" Soft Tissue, Six Years Later

"Controversial T. Rex Soft Tissue Find Finally Explained"
Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience (November 26, 2013)

"The controversial discovery of 68-million-year-old soft tissue from the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex finally has a physical explanation. According to new research, iron in the dinosaur's body preserved the tissue before it could decay.

"The research, headed by Mary Schweitzer, a molecular paleontologist at North Carolina State University, explains how proteins — and possibly even DNA — can survive millennia. Schweitzer and her colleagues first raised this question in 2005, when they found the seemingly impossible: soft tissue preserved inside the leg of an adolescent T. rex unearthed in Montana.

" 'What we found was unusual, because it was still soft and still transparent and still flexible,' Schweitzer told LiveScience...."
"Unusual" is an understatement. I doubt that anyone expected a 68,000,000 year old bone to have some of the original tissue inside: "...still soft...."

Small wonder that scientists had to verify that the stuff had not seeped in or grown there later: and that other folks, who don't like what we've been learning over the last several centuries, acted as they did.

Bacteria, Birds, and Iron

"...The find was also controversial, because scientists had thought proteins that make up soft tissue should degrade in less than 1 million years in the best of conditions. In most cases, microbes feast on a dead animal's soft tissue, destroying it within weeks. The tissue must be something else, perhaps the product of a later bacterial invasion, critics argued.

"Then, in 2007, Schweitzer and her colleagues analyzed the chemistry of the T. rex proteins. They found the proteins really did come from dinosaur soft tissue. The tissue was collagen, they reported in the journal Science, and it shared similarities with bird collagen — which makes sense, as modern birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs such as T. rex...."
(Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience)
I'm no scientist, but after looking through a 2007 paper: I think she and her team did a very thorough job of collecting an analyzing data; that she's quite likely correct.

She also has a very plausible explanation for how that Cretaceous collagen stayed comparatively fresh. Like all vertebrates, except for an oddball sort of fish, the dinosaur's body contained quite a bit of iron. While it was alive, this iron was tightly bound in substances like hemoglobin.

When it died, substances like hemoglobin and myoglobin in the dinosaur's tissues started breaking down: releasing the iron. Iron reacts with proteins and cell membranes, making them unpalatable to bacteria. The effect is a bit like what happens when you drop a tissue sample in formaldehyde.

Dinosaur Tissue Samples: Knowing Where to Look

If it was that simple, we'd have found preserved dinosaur steaks long ago. This particular T. rex got buried in what became sandstone: a porous rock that acted like a wick, pulling bacteria and reactive enzymes away from the body. What's needed is apparently a fairly specific combination of circumstances.

The good news is that scientists now know what to look for, and where to look. I'll be surprised if preserved dinosaur tissue ever becomes as common as trilobite fossils: but finding any is remarkable.

The Royal Society published a correction after Schweitzer's research was released, by the way. The error was in a funding acknowledgement. That's important, but doesn't affect the findings.

Background (not easy reading):
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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.