Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Putting Flesh on Bone

More dinosaur bones yield traces of blood, soft tissue

Scientists studying dinosaur evolution are finding many more bones to pick.
Researchers from London have found hints of blood and fibrous tissue in a hodgepodge of 75-million-year-old dinosaur bones. These fossils had been poorly preserved. That now suggests residues of soft tissues may be more common in dino bones than scientists had thought. Details appeared June 9 in Nature Communications.

Scientists are excited at the idea that soft tissues might still exist in most dinosaur bones. It would give them the ability to study these long-extinct animals at the cellular level. And such studies could reveal when dinosaurs switched from being cold-blooded to warm-blooded creatures.

Matthew Collins is an expert in the study of ancient proteins at the University of York in England. (Proteins form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues. They also do the work inside of cells.) Until now, scientists had thought that traces of soft tissue from dinosaurs remained only in really well-preserved fossils. “It’s exciting to think that we may have more soft tissue in dinosaur bones kicking around,” says Collins, who was not involved in the new study.

Susannah Maidment is a paleontologist at Imperial College London in England. She was part of a team that has just found residues of soft tissue in slivers of eight dinosaur bones. These included a toe claw from a theropod. There also was a rib from a duckbilled dinosaur. All had been found about a century ago, mostly in Alberta, Canada. Since then, the bones had been stashed in drawers at the Natural History Museum in London.

The team used a scanning electron microscope to study the bones. This special microscope can highlight features that are just a few billionths of a meter across. The dinosaur bone images revealed what appeared to be red blood cells. A second type of powerful microscope probed the structure of some bone features. These images showed bands similar to patterns formed by collagen in animal bones today. Collagen is a fibrous protein. It is found not only in bones, but also in cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues.

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