Next dinosaur news likely to come from small packages
and World Science staff
Dinosaurs seem bigger than life—big bones, big mysteries.
But ironically, the next big answers about dinosaurs may come from very small remains, researchers say.
“Molecules are fossils, too,” said zoologist Peggy Ostrom of Michigan State University in Lansing, Mich. “We’ve shown that proteins survive in very old fossils, and proteins can tell us about diseases, about where prehistoric animals fit in the food chain, what they ate and who they are related to.”
Ostrom and six other scientists are to explore technology used to glean information from ancient bits of bone and tissue in a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting Friday in St. Louis, Mo.
One of the field’s hottest topics, Ostrom said, is whether proteins and DNA survive the test of time. Proteins are molecules that make up the structural tissue of living cells. DNA is the key molecule for carrying genetic information.
Ostrom is betting on proteins, and is working with an international team to track them down in bones. The pursuit is a budding field of research known as paleoproteomics. Her work ranges from examining organic matter in meteorites to reconstructing who eats who in the food web, from the tropics to the Arctic.
The trail is laid by stubbornly durable molecules, she explained. She uses mass spectrometry, an analytical technique that determines what molecules are present.
Molecules may be tiny, but they can be tough, she added. The plant that a mastodon munched some 10,000 years ago disperses through the animal’s body, sprinkling molecules of itself through tissue and hair—vivid scientific evidence you are what you eat.
“It just takes two or three pinches of bone powder to find molecular evidence,” Ostrom said. She studies protein sequences, the detailed series of subunits, called amino acids, that make up a protein. “We have protein sequences from material believed to be in the range of half a million years old. We are carefully working our way back in time.”
It seems some proteins can last longer than DNA, she added. “If we have a protein sequence from bone, we can tell if the material is an original part of the organism that will provide interesting information about its past. We can know where it came from,” Ostrom said. “Our goal is to use a variety of technologies new to paleontology to develop a deeper understanding of prehistoric life.”
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