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JURASSIC LARK: A paleontologist analyzes the bones of a sauropod.
Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
JURASSIC LARK: A paleontologist analyzes the bones of a sauropod.

Bones to pick

Science | Scientists are at odds on the question of soft tissue preservation

An ongoing debate over whether cellular material can be preserved within fossils for long periods of time got a fresh round of ammunition in October. Two new studies of DNA and proteins offered support for opposite perspectives.

In the first, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Australian scientists drilled into 158 semifossilized leg bones from extinct, flightless moa birds and extracted DNA samples. Relying on carbon dating, the researchers measured the bones to be between 600 and 8,000 years old. They calculated how much DNA had degraded in the older and younger fossils, and by comparing those amounts, estimated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years—meaning about half of DNA breaks apart every 521 years. The upshot is that little readable DNA should be able to survive in a fossil beyond 1.5 million years, and none beyond 6.8 million.

In the second study, published in Bone, a team led by North Carolina State University researcher Mary H. Schweitzer used mass spectrometry to show evidence for the existence of dinosaur proteins inside Tyrannosaurus rex and duck-billed hadrosaur fossils, both purported to be more than 60 million years old. The team also found evidence of material within the fossils that behaved, chemically, like DNA.

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Schweitzer is famous for discovering soft tissue inside a fossilized T. rex femur in 2004. Although subsequent studies have backed up her findings, critics who can’t swallow the idea of 67-million-year-old dinosaur protein argue the T. rex proteins actually came from a “biofilm” deposited by microbes that invaded the fossils in more recent years. In defense, Schweitzer contends that a previously unknown chemical mechanism allows cellular matter to be preserved over geologic time. An apparent solution to the dispute—that dinosaurs may be considerably younger than current theory dictates—is unlikely to get much consideration, given the commitment to Darwinian evolution in mainstream science.

Thus, the riddle remains scientifically unsolved. According to Scientific American reporter Kate Wong, Schweitzer poked fun at her opponents during a talk at an Oct. 17 paleontology conference in North Carolina. “Here’s the data in support of a biofilm origin,” she said, showing everyone a blank slide. “We haven’t found any yet.”

Shots in the dark

Associated Press/Photo by Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

Flu vaccines are less effective than health officials have thought, say researchers from the University of Minnesota. In a three-year study that reviewed 12,000 science journal articles and other documents, disease experts from the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy concluded there’s little consistent evidence that annual flu shots reduce the risk of illness among children ages 2 to 17 or among adults 65 and older.

That doesn’t mean people should forgo shots, though: The team found flu shots to be moderately (about 59 percent) effective among healthy adults ages 18 to 64, and the nasal spray vaccine was about 83 percent effective among young children (7 and under). “We urge people to get their flu shot,” said lead researcher Michael T. Osterholm. “The present vaccines are the best interventions available for seasonal influenza.” But the team said the widespread perception that flu shots are very effective has discouraged efforts to develop next-generation vaccines that could protect against more than one flu strain. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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