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DNA and bone cells found in dinosaur bone

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11 December 2012, Updated 23 April 2020

123rf.com/Eakkachai Ngamwuttiwong

For the last 15 years, Dr Mary Schweitzer has been rocking the evolutionary/uniformitarian world with discoveries of soft tissue in dinosaur bones.1 These discoveries have included blood cells, blood vessels, and proteins like collagen. But under measured rates of decomposition, they could not have lasted for the presumed 65 million years (Ma) since dino extinction, even if they had been kept at freezing point (never mind the much warmer climate proposed for the dinosaurs).2 As she said in a popular TV show:

When you think about it, the laws of chemistry and biology and everything else that we know say that it should be gone, it should be degraded completely.3

… as well as the following in a scientific paper:

The presence of original molecular components is not predicted for fossils older than a million years, and the discovery of collagen in this well-preserved dinosaur supports the use of actualistic conditions to formulate molecular degradation rates and models, rather than relying on theoretical or experimental extrapolations derived from conditions that do not occur in nature.4

As a careful scientist, after Dr Schweitzer found elastic blood vessels and other soft tissue, she rechecked her data thoroughly. A report quoted her as follows:

“It was totally shocking,” Schweitzer says. “I didn’t believe it until we’d done it 17 times.”5

Other evolutionists saw the baneful implications to their long-age dogma, and claimed that the blood vessels were really bacterial biofilms, and the blood cells were iron-rich spheres called framboids.6 Yet this ignores the wide range of evidence Schweitzer adduced, and she has answered this claim in detail.7,8 However, Schweitzer herself maintains her faith in the long-age paradigm.9

Dino bone cells and proteins

Schweitzer’s more recent research makes long ages even harder to believe. Here, she analyzed bone from two dinosaurs, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex (MOR 112510) and a large duck-billed dinosaur called Brachylophosaurus canadensis (MOR 2598).11 Bone is an amazing structure with the ability to re-work in response to stress,12 and uses the finely designed protein osteocalcin,13 which has been found in the best known duck-billed dinosaur, Iguanadon, ‘dated’ to 120 Ma.14 The most plentiful cells in bones are osteocytes. These have a distinctive branching structure that connects to other osteocytes, and have a “vital role” in “immediate responses to changing stresses.”10

James D. San Antonio, Mary H. Schweitzer, Shane T. Jensen, Raghu Kalluri, Michael Buckley, Joseph P. R. O. Orgel. (2011). Dinosaur Peptides Suggest Mechanisms of Protein Survival. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20381. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020381

Schweitzer’s team again removed the hard bony mineral with the chelating agent EDTA. They found “transparent cell-like microstructures with dentritic [branching, just the shape expected for osteocytes] processes, some containing internal contents,” from both dinos.

They also used antibodies to detect the globular proteins actin and tubulin, used to make filaments and tubes in vertebrates. The proteins from both dinos had similar binding patterns to the same proteins from ostrich and alligator. They are not found in bacteria, so this rules out contamination. In particular, these antibodies did not bind to the type of bacteria that forms biofilms, “thus a biofilm origin for these structures is not supported.”10 Furthermore, they tested for collagen, a fibrous animal protein, and it was found in these bones—but not in surrounding sediments.

Furthermore, because actin, tubulin, and collagen are not unique to bone, they tested for a very distinctive osteocyte protein called PHEX. This stands for Phosphate-regulating endopeptidase, X-linked, which is vital in depositing the hard bone mineral. And indeed, antibodies specific to PHEX detected this unique bone protein.15 Detecting a distinctive bone protein is very strong support for osteocyte identification.

The problem for long ages is as they ask:

Cells are usually completely degraded soon after the death of the organism, so how could ‘bone cells’ and the molecules that comprise them persist in Mesozoic [evolutionary dino-age] bone?10

They try to solve this problem by proposing that bone protects the cells from bacteria that cause degradation. Bone would hinder the cells from swelling that comes before cells self-destruct (autolysis) as well. They also propose that the surfaces of the mineral crystals attract and destroy enzymes that would otherwise speed up degradation. They propose that iron may play a vital role too, both by helping to cross-link and stabilize the proteins, as well as by acting as an anti-oxidant.

Actually, this is all reasonable from a biblical creationist perspective, up to a point. Measured decay rates of some proteins are compatible with an age of about 4,500 years (since the Flood), but not with many millions of years. However, seeing not only proteins but even cell microstructures after 4,500 years is still surprising, considering how easily bacteria can normally attack them. These ideas could help explain survival over thousands of years. But they seem totally implausible for millions of years, since the above preservation proposals could not stop ordinary breakdown by water (hydrolysis) over vast eons.16

Dino DNA

The problem for long-agers is even more acute with their discovery of DNA. Estimates of DNA stability put its upper limit of survival at 125,000 years at 0°C, 17,500 years at 10°C and 2,500 years at 20°C.2 One recent report said:

“There is a general belief that DNA is ‘rock solid’—extremely stable,” says Brandt Eichman, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt, who directed the project. “Actually DNA is highly reactive.”
On a good day about one million bases in the DNA in a human cell are damaged. These lesions are caused by a combination of normal chemical activity within the cell and exposure to radiation and toxins coming from environmental sources including cigarette smoke, grilled foods and industrial wastes.17

A recent paper on DNA shows that it might be able to last as much as 400 times longer in bone.18 But even there, there is no way that DNA could last the evolutionary time since dino extinction. Their figures of the time till complete disintegration of DNA (“no intact bonds”) is 22,000 years at 25°C, 131,000 years at 15°C, 882,000 years at 5°C; and even if it could somehow be kept continually below freezing point at –5°C, it could survive only 6.83 Ma—only about a tenth of the assumed evolutionary age. The researchers state:

However, even under the best preservation conditions at –5°C, our model predicts that no intact bonds (average length = 1 bp [base pair]) will remain in the DNA ‘strand’ after 6.8 Myr. This displays the extreme improbability of being able to amplify a 174 bp DNA fragment from an 80–85 Myr old Cretaceous bone.18

Yet Schweitzer’s team detected DNA in three independent ways. Indeed, one of these chemical tests and specific antibodies specifically detect DNA in its double–stranded form. This shows that it was quite well preserved, since short strands of DNA less than about 10 bp don’t form stable duplexes. The fluorescent molecular probe DAPI19 lodges in the minor groove of a stable double helix, which requires even more bp (see diagram below), and the stain PI20 is also an intercalation test.

commons.wikimedia.orgDNA-DAPI
DAPI lodging into a DNA double helix groove.

Again, the first possible response by long-agers is “contamination”. But the DNA was not found everywhere, but only in certain internal regions of the ‘cells’. This pattern was just like in ostrich cells, but nothing like biofilm taken from other sources and exposed to the same DNA-detecting pattern. This is enough to rule out bacteria, because in more complex cells (such as ours and dinos), the DNA is stored in a small part of the cell—the nucleus.

Futhermore, Schweitzer’s team detected a special protein called histone H4. Not only is yet another protein a big problem for millions of years, but this is a specific protein for DNA. (DNA is Deoxy-riboNucleic Acid, so is negatively charged, while histones are alkaline so positively charged, so they attract DNA). In more complex organisms, the histones are tiny spools around which the DNA is wrapped.22 But histones are not found in bacteria. So, as Schweitzer et al. say, “These data support the presence of non-microbial DNA in these dinosaur cells.”11

Update: Some anticreationists have denied that Dr Schweitzer found any dinosaur DNA, but all the evidence in this paper was best explained by the presence of intact DNA. And in a paper published in early 2020, where she was a co-author, the claims are more explicit.23 In this paper, they claim that to interact with the probe molecules like DAPI, double-stranded piece of DNA of at least 6 base pairs required, based on a 1995 paper,24 although an earlier paper suggested that DAPI can bind to a minimum 12-bp piece of DNA, as long as there are 4 A-T pairs, since DAPI intercalates into “the minor groove of A-T rich sequences of DNA.”19 The paper says:

This study provides the first clear chemical and molecular demonstration of calcified cartilage preservation in Mesozoic skeletal material, and suggests that in addition to cartilage-specific collagen II, DNA, or at least the chemical markers of DNA (for example, chemically altered base pairs that can still react to PI and DAPI), may preserve for millions of years.23

But surely a chemical alteration of the base pairs would ruin the base-pair interaction needed to keep the DNA in a double helix. The paper concludes:

… our data suggest the preserved nuclear material in Hypacrosaurus was in a condensed state at the time of the death of the organism, which may have contributed to its stability. We propose that DNA condensation may be a favorable process to its fossilization. Additionally, as was suggested for protein fossilization [Refs.], crosslinking may be another mechanism involved in the preservation of DNA in deep time.23

Conclusion

It’s hard to improve on one of Mary Schweitzer’s early quotes:

It was exactly like looking at a slice of modern bone. But of course, I couldn’t believe it. I said to the lab technician: “The bones are, after all, 65 million years old. How could blood cells survive that long?”25

But this just shows the grip of the long-age paradigm. A more reasonable and indeed scientific question would be:

This looks like modern bone; I have seen blood cells [and blood vessels] and detected hemoglobin [and now actin, tubulin, collagen, histones, and DNA], and real chemistry shows they can’t survive for 65 million years. What I don’t see is the claimed millions of years. So we should abandon this doctrine.

References

  1. Schweitzer, M.H. et al., Heme compounds in dinosaur trabecular bone, PNAS 94:6291–6296, Jun 1997. See also Wieland, C., Sensational dinosaur blood report! Creation 19(4):42–43, 1997; creation.com/ dino_blood. Return to text.
  2. Nielsen-Marsh, C., Biomolecules in fossil remains: Multidisciplinary approach to endurance, The Biochemist, pp. 12–14, Jun 2002. See also Doyle, S., The real ‘Jurassic Park’? Creation 30(3):12–15, 2008; creation.com/real-jurassic-park and Thomas, B., Original animal protein in fossils, Creation 35(1):14–16, 2013. Return to text.
  3. Schweitzer, M., Nova Science Now, May 2009, cross.tv/21726. See also Wieland, C. And Sarfati, J., Dino proteins and blood vessels: are they a big deal? creation.com/dino-proteins, 9 May 2009. Return to text.
  4. Schweitzer, M.H., et al., Analyses of soft tissue from Tyrannosaurus rex suggest the presence of protein, Science 316(5822):277–280, 2007. Return to text.
  5. Schweitzer, cited in Science 307:1852, 25 Mar 2005. Return to text.
  6. Kaye, T.G. et al., Dinosaurian soft tissues interpreted as bacterial biofilms, PLoS ONE 3(7):e2808, 2008 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002808. Return to text.
  7. Researchers debate: Is it preserved dinosaur tissue, or bacterial slime? blogs.discovermagazine.com, 30 Jul 2008. Return to text.
  8. Wieland, C., Doubting doubts about the Squishosaur, creation.com/squishosaur-doubts, 2 Aug 2008. Return to text.
  9. Yeoman, B., Schweitzer’s dangerous discovery, Discover 27(4):37–41, 77, April 2006. See also Catchpoole, D. and Sarfati, J., Schweitzer’s Dangerous Discovery , creation.com/schweit, 19 Jul 2006. Return to text.
  10. Classification code—Museum of the Rockies. Return to text.
  11. Schweitzer, M.H. et al. Molecular analyses of dinosaur osteocytes support the presence of endogenous molecules, Bone, 17 Oct 2012 | doi:10.1016/j.bone.2012.10.010. See also Thomas, B., Did scientists find T. Rex DNA? icr.org/article/7093/, 7 Nov 2012. Return to text.
  12. Wieland, C., Bridges and bones, girders and groans, Creation 12(2):20–24, 1990; creation.com/bones. Return to text.
  13. Sarfati, J., Bone building: perfect protein, J. Creation 18(1):11–12, 2004; creation.com/bone. Return to text.
  14. Embery G., Milner A.C., Waddington R.J., Hall R.C., Langley M.S., Milan A.M., Identification of proteinaceous material in the bone of the dinosaur Iguanodon, Connect Tissue Res. 44 Suppl 1:41–6, 2003. The abstract says: “an early eluting fraction was immunoreactive with an antibody against osteocalcin.” Return to text.
  15. Antibodies developed from chicken bound to the dino PHEX, but not those of alligators. Schweitzer has long used her data to push the dino-to-bird dogma, but for a response to earlier claims, see Menton, D., Ostrich-osaurus discovery? creation.com/ostrich-dino, 28 March 2005. See also Sarfati., J., Bird breathing anatomy breaks dino-to-bird dogma, creation.com/dino-thigh, 16 Jun 2009. Return to text.
  16. Compare Sarfati, J., Origin of life: the polymerization problem, J. Creation 12(3):281–284, 1998; creation.com/polymer. Return to text.
  17. Newly discovered DNA repair mechanism, Science News, sciencedaily.com, 5 Oct 2010; see also Sarfati, J., New DNA repair enzyme discovered, creation.com/DNA-repair-enzyme, 13 Jan 2010. Return to text.
  18. Allentoft, M.E. et al., The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils, Proc. Royal Society B 279(1748):4724–4733, 7 Dec 2012 | doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.1745. Return to text.
  19. 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole, a fluorescent stain. DAPI can bind to a 12-bp piece of DNA, as long as there are 4 A-T pairs, according to Larsen, T.A. et al., The structure of DAPI bound to DNA, Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics 7(3):477–491, 1989 | doi:10.1080/07391102.1989.10508505. Return to text.
  20. Propidium iodide (C27H34I2N4), a fluorescent stain. Return to text.
  21. Segal, E. et al., A genomic code for nucleosome positioning, Nature 442(7104):772–778, 17 Aug 2006; DOI: 10.1038/nature04979. See also White, D., The Genetic Puppeteer, Creation 30(2):42–44, 2008; creation.com/puppet. Return to text.
  22. Schweitzer, M.H., Montana State University Museum of the Rockies; cited on p. 160 of Morell, V., Dino DNA: The hunt and the hype, Science 261(5118):160–162, 9 Jul 1993. Return to text.
  23. Bailleul, A.M., Zheng, W., Horner, J.R., Hall, B.K., Holliday, C.M., and Schweitzer, M.H., Evidence of proteins, chromosomes and chemical markers of DNA in exceptionally preserved dinosaur cartilage, National Science Review nwz206, 12 Jan 2020 | doi:10.1093/nsr/nwz206. Return to text.
  24. Kapuscinski, J., DAPI: a DNA-specific fluorescent probe, Biotech. Histochem. (5):220–233., Sep 1995 | doi:10.3109/10520299509108199. Return to text.
  25. Schweitzer, M.H., Montana State University Museum of the Rockies; cited on p. 160 of Morell, V., Dino DNA: The hunt and the hype, Science 261(5118):160–162, 9 Jul 1993. Return to text.

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