Author: Dunia Rassy
Institution: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Two years ago, Mary Schweitzer stirred paleontologists all over the world after announcing that she had recovered intact proteins from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex. Her findings defied the general belief that proteins degrade over time, and hence were received amidst much skepticism and controversy. However, Schweitzer's paper in the May 1st edition of Science confirms that her techniques revolutionized paleontology. Along with her team from North Carolina State University, she has recently found intact proteins in an 80-million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur.
After facing critics, Schweitzer wanted to demonstrate that finding viable proteins in fossils had not been a lucky event. Along with her students and a team from the Museum of the Rockies, she made predictions of materials constituting suitable environments for protein preservation. Since sandstone turned out to be one of these, Schweitzer and her team went back to a Brachylophsaurus Canadensis (duck-billed dinosaur) skeleton they had discovered in 2006 buried deep in sandstone in the Judith River Formation in Montana. A leg bone was set aside to run the tests, and proteins were found within it.
As a second round would serve as a confirmation for the T. rex results, the paleontologists decided to go a step further this time. "We used improved methodology with better instrumentation, did more experiments and had the results verified by other independent labs" Schweitzer detailed. In addition to examining the samples microscopically, her team used antibodies to confirm the presence of collagen and other proteins. John Asara, one of the collaborators from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Harvard Medical School, employed advanced equipment to identify eight collagen fragments. Five research groups from the US and the UK confirmed their results.
Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era in Paleontology? Schweitzer expects her findings to arouse interest in the examination of these ancient molecules: "I'm hoping in the future we can use this work as a jumping off point to look for other proteins that are more species-specific than collagen. It will give us much clearer insight into all sorts of evolutionary questions". Now, as proteins unfold new data, we may be witnesses of a major transformation of Paleontology in the near future.